Cindi McEachon does not mess around. She is frank, direct and will punctuate a passionate deposition against institutional apathy with the occasional well-selected swear word, blue eyes smiling politely all the while. She’s tireless, because she has to be.
McEachon is the executive director of Peaceprints of Western New York, a non-profit organization that helps people transition from prison back into the community through support groups prior to release, reentry workshops, community outreach, job placement and transitional housing. The organization is the present-day amalgamation of Cephas Attica, formed to place more value on the worth and dignity of inmates following the Attica uprising in 1972, and HOPE House, a transitional residence founded in 1985 by Sister Karen Klimczak, who was tragically murdered by a resident on Good Friday 2006 (an event that gave flight to the city-wide movement featuring white dove cutouts that read “I leave Peaceprints”).
McEachon’s office is down the hall from the kitchen and living room at Bissonette House, a transitional residence for a few dozen male parolees aged 18 to 80. She will pause a conversation to get up and swiftly put an end to an overly boisterous board game or to warmly greet one of the many graduates who come back frequently to visit. Though she’s slightly built and greatly outnumbered, McEachon never feels unsafe.
“I keep it real and tell them exactly what I’m seeing, and what needs to happen next,” she says firmly. “I’m their biggest supporter, and I am not the system they’re used to.”
McEachon didn’t start her career as a crusading college grad hell-bent on changing the world for people caught up in the prison system. She first spent a decade working with people with disabilities, looked for a change of pace, and found a job listing for someone to help parolees get jobs. At the time, she was shocked there was enough need to make it a full-time position. Her new boss became a mentor whose passion swept McEachon into four years of learning the societal intricacies and magnitude of mass incarceration and release.
“I started to really understand how little people had to work with when they got out of jail. They’re bottom-feeders – they’re exploited, left without, and have absolutely no safety net. Then I got mad.”
Then she was approached by a headhunter who said she seemed like an experienced candidate for the recently vacated executive director position at Peaceprints. With 14 years of social services experience and a keen understanding of the parolee reentry process, McEachon jumped at the chance, sat through several strong interviews – and didn’t get the job. The recruiter says she looked too young to be taken seriously.
McEachon got pissed, then determined. She stopped coloring her hair to let her silver strands show. In the meantime, she worked as a reentry coordinator for Erie County where she says she got an inside look at the prison industry, who was there to do good, and who was not. A year and a half later in 2014, the then-executive director of Peaceprints decided to leave, called McEachon directly, and offered her the job.
Many of the mostly men and some women served by Peaceprints have been in the criminal justice system since they were adolescents. McEachon says that for so many people, the opportunity and perseverance to right a wrong simply don’t exist. She knows firsthand what a difference grit and support can make.
“So many people told me I screwed up my life by giving birth when I was 15,” she says. “It fuels my passion for these guys. I know what it feels like to be labeled and assumed a failure without the opportunity to show what you can do.”
McEachon’s daughters are now 20 and 13. Her girls spend a lot of time with the residents, baking cookies at the house, touring the Buffalo Zoo and welcoming former prisoners into their own home for holidays.
“My kids have a different understanding and exposure to a huge range of people and perspectives,” she explains. “I want them to be good people, and to do selfless acts.”
The girls have quite the role model in their mother. Aside from a more-than-full-time job, a 5:30am daily gym habit and an ambitious running calendar that includes several races a year, McEachon is an active member of Women on the Rise, serves as the Executive Vice President of the Junior League of Buffalo and is secretary of the board for Homespace, LLC. She was recognized in 2015 as a Buffalo’s Women Who Move the City honoree, as an Athena Young Professional finalist and as a Woman in Leadership by the Buffalo Chapter of NYS Women’s Inc. in 2016. Last year, she was recognized by Lockport High School as a Distinguished Alumni and as a Buffalo Business First 40 under 40 honoree. While McEachon juggles it all with grace and optimism, she readily admits she’s not unflappable.
“It’s the criminal justice system and the politics that get exhausting,” she says. “Butting heads against conformity gets to me. And when someone is doing well and they drop off, it’s hard to see that happen. I have two daughters and hundreds of sons, and I’m proud of all of them.”
Story topics: BufFYI