We all struggle to find purpose and meaning in life. But few of us struggle for as long or as painfully as Raul Baez, the founder of WITO, Inc.
Baez founded the nonprofit, which is named after his late son, to teach inmates financial literacy and character development. The unique acronym stands for “We Innovatively Transform Ourselves.”
The idea came to Baez while he was in prison serving 12 years for a failed armed robbery. Before being imprisoned, he fell into a life of crime while heavily abusing drugs and reeling from the loss of his son, who was killed in the Bronx in 1993, the victim of drug violence.
About halfway through his sentence, Baez experienced a transformation. Walking through the prison yard with a fellow inmate, they heard a service going on in the nearby chapel and decided to go in for no other reason than to procure donuts and coffee. But upon entering, Baez had an experience that ultimately changed his life.
“I heard Matthew 11:28,” says Baez, “‘Come to me, all of you who are heavy at heart for I will give you rest. My burden is easy and my yoke is light.’ And the words just penetrated my heart.”
Baez found faith and slowly began to turn his life around. Over the course of two years, he quit abusing drugs — choosing instead to spend all of his free time reading, taking courses and learning everything he could about finance, real estate, personal budgeting and healthy habits. Eventually, he felt that God was asking him to assist others, so he began sharing his knowledge with his fellow inmates. In 2010, he was released from prison, and three years later, he officially launched WITO Inc. as a nonprofit, teaching inmates about the various subject matters he studied so intently while behind bars himself.
WITO is now present in six New York City correctional facilities. Since its conception, 140 inmates have graduated from the six-month program. So far, 43 percent of those have found jobs post-incarceration. But perhaps the biggest measure of WITO’s success is the recidivism rate for its graduates, which stands at 23 percent — compared to 67 percent for New York State as the whole.
Baez shows no plans of slowing down, describing his mentoring work as his calling.
“These men and women will never break out of this cycle,” says Baez, “if somebody didn’t take the initiative.”