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VOL. 7 | NO. 30 | Saturday, July 19, 2014

From Despair to Belief

Memphis nonprofit HopeWorks gives offenders an opportunity and a future

By Don Wade

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A July weekday afternoon, about 2:45. It’s the perfect time for just about anyone to be nodding off in class.

Hope Works participants Kenyatta Tipton, left, Kevin Young and Curtis Parker discuss the Bible as part of their career and development class.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

But in the basement of Midtown Church of Christ, where HopeWorks Inc. is housed, class is in session and a dozen men and their teacher are having a lively discussion.

The men, some of whom more recently lived in a prison cell than held even a temporary job, are smiling and laughing as they move through workplace scenarios set forth by instructor Tonio Owens, 46, himself a HopeWorks graduate but for more than 11 years an employee here and a wise counselor of the most real kind.

“I tell them, ‘You didn’t mess your life up in 13 weeks,’” Owens said during a break, referring to the length of the training that hopefully will lead these men to employment and genuine futures. “You’re not gonna straighten it out in 13 weeks.”

But at least right now, in week seven of the course, it seems apparent that many of the men are starting to think differently. Owens puts forth about as basic of a problem as a new worker could have: It’s your first day on the job and you don’t have lunch money. What do you do? Do you ask to borrow money from a co-worker you just met? Do you go sit with others as they eat lunch and hope somebody will catch on and offer you part of their sandwich?

When men arrive at HopeWorks, Owens says, they usually have one thing in common: their self-esteem, on a scale of 1 to 10, is zero. In this scenario, that still-fragile self-esteem that may have been creeping upward is again challenged.

“We ain’t gonna eat today,” says one student, a 40-something man who rejects the idea of asking to borrow money. “But you got a job now. You ain’t in a bad way.”

It’s a moment of clarity – a not-so-pleasant snapshot giving way to a brighter bigger picture. Owens jumps in and points out the problem could have been avoided. If it’s Monday and you had a family meal on Sunday, you could have saved some food back for your first day’s lunch.

And so it goes. None of the scenarios may have perfect solutions, but there are better choices and worse choices.

HopeWorks, a faith-based nonprofit, has been around since 1988. If you want to put a polite spin on what they do, they serve the “chronically unemployed.” And that’s true. For example, part of their $1 million annual operating budget comes through their role in helping people get their GEDs.

But in reality, most of the graduates – and this next class will include their 1,000th graduate – have criminal backgrounds, and most of those have at least one felony on their record. Those are the people hardest to place in the job market.

“We’re a faith-based deal,” said executive director Ron Wade. “I think God is in it, not that we do everything perfectly. But the people that fund us want outcomes.”

Recently Tara Albright, another graduate who started here full-time in January of 2013, has made great strides in that regard. Last year Albright, who is workforce developer, placed 103 people, the most in the organization’s history. So far this year, she has placed 60 people.

Almost 69 percent of the people placed in 2013 are still working, Wade said. Since January, 77.4 percent of the graduates placed this year are still working. The last time the organization did a recidivism study was in June 2012. Wade said they found that from 2008 through June 2012 that only 15.4 percent of HopeWorks graduates had returned to the criminal justice system.

Wade says he was “shocked” at what Albright accomplished in a short amount of time. Albright, 33, is as blunt as she is gregarious, as realistic as she is optimistic. She needs all those qualities to be as effective with students (clients) as she is with potential employers. Obviously, some employers aren’t ready to give HopeWorks a chance, but Albright has found that by targeting companies with 50 or fewer employees, the odds of success increase.

“They’re more open,” she said. “In Memphis, people hear ‘felon’ or ‘offender’ and everybody cringes up and gets scared. If I can get to the owner the chances are better. It’s the people under the decision-makers that set the most barriers. The owners tell me straight yes or straight no; no sugarcoating.”

Albright doesn’t do sugarcoating either.

“The culture of the people we deal with is, ‘I’m poor because I’m black and they’re rich because they’re white,’” said Albright, an African-American. “Our clients don’t understand that a lot of the things that happen to them, happen to them based on their misconceptions of what life is.

Hope Works executive director Ron Wade, bottom right, prays with class members.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“At night when my stomach growls, I can’t eat because I walked out of my job. Our biggest generational barrier is the propaganda in the black community that we are still crying to get equal,” Albright said. “That’s the biggest card people play.”

Owens recalls when he came to HopeWorks and his life changed. A former drug dealer, he literally had the words “Hope Works” cut into his dreadlocks. The reaction on the street?

“They said the white people brainwashed me,” Owens said with a laugh, adding in a serious tone, “If we don’t elevate these men, especially black men, we’re gonna keep having these cycles of poverty and despair.”

Susan Mealer wanted to see for herself. The owner of Answering Advantage, a Memphis telephone answering service and call center, she came to the HopeWorks campus.

“I attended classes,” she said. “I talked to candidates. And I walked away very impressed.”

Mealer has five graduates working for her, two of whom have completed their training with her company and three that are still in training.

She says they have felonies and “I don’t know a lot of details” and doesn’t need to know a lot of details. What she does know is that they completed the 13-week course, punching in and out on a time clock, and passed all their random drug tests.

Mealer can match her agents with certain types of calls, and for now the HopeWorks grads do not take any calls involving credit card numbers.

“I want them to get where they take all calls,” she said.

Brent Ragin, owner of Advanced Coldforming Co. Inc., a Memphis company that manufactures heating and air-conditioning components, employs a HopeWorks graduate who has been with him for three years. Another graduate worked more than two years for him and then failed a drug test and lost his job.

“All of us have a little dysfunction in our family,” Ragin said. “I’ve got a (family member) that got into drugs. I’ve always thought you give people a chance. I’ve had people who have been incarcerated more than 20 years (they didn’t come out of the HopeWorks program) and they’ve been some of my best employees.”

For Lynn Parrish, executive vice president for safety/risk management at IMC Cos. in Memphis, a holding company for five intermodal trucking companies that employs 1,250, HopeWorks potentially offers the promise of matching one need with another. Parrish has one graduate going through long-term training now with the goal of becoming a licensed long-haul commercial truck driver for Intermodal Cartage Co. If he succeeds, he can expect to make $45,000 to $60,000 a year.

“What we need is good, qualified truck drivers,” Parrish said. “There is a critical shortage of quality intermodal drivers.”

Parrish calls the man working for them now “in the top 1 percent” of HopeWorks candidates. Parrish won’t consider anyone with a serious theft charge, a violent crime record within the last seven years or a DUI within the last five years.

“We’re pulling our clients’ precious cargo down the road,” he said.

Albright says while the largest companies tend to be the most resistant to hiring people with felonies in their past, she has placed some of those “chronically unemployed” clients without felonies at companies such as FedEx and International Paper. For many HopeWorks graduates, one of the biggest challenges is getting to and from the job or, before then, to and from classes.

“We invest a little more than $3,000 per student for computer training, counseling, internships and bus tokens,” Wade said, adding that they recently saved the job of one graduate who took the bus and was chronically late by providing a donated car.

While Ragin has the reputation for being willing to hire felons, he has one requirement that raises the bar: Job candidates must have a valid driver’s license.

“To me,” he said, “it shows you’re responsible enough to maintain it and that if you get a ticket, you’ll pay it.”

Wade and his staff interviewed about 80 people for the current class, which has 21 women and 12 men. They started with just over 40 people total, with seven men failing a random drug test after starting the class and four of the women failing.

“It hurts a little bit,” Kenyatta Tipton, 35, and still one of the men in class, said of hearing a classmate failed a drug test and is out of the program.

Wade says students who fail a drug test are welcome to apply for the next class, but historically few do.

“You know they don’t have this safe haven,” Tipton said. “We pray for those people still, like they’re still here.”

Albright says new students sometimes come in starry-eyed; they want to be a rapper or go straight from prison to nursing school. Those things aren’t happening.

Assuming the graduates get a job – and odds are growing ever better that Albright will help them do that – it’s largely on them to keep the job. Wade believes they can help even more than they currently do and soon will hire a fulltime retention specialist to make regular contact with employed graduates. Much of the work in class focuses on those real-life situations and old thought patterns that are lingering threats to staying employed.

Pat Tia, 51, who graduated from the HopeWorks program in 2009 and is now a part-time instructor at HopeWorks and a senior at the University of Memphis, says, “I came from a corner; I was a prostitute and addicted to crack cocaine.”

But you’d never know it listening to her lead the women through a class where the discussion has landed on authority figures. Tia asks the women to share a negative experience with an authority figure, and predictably that inspires a few tales of bad, power-hungry cops. She guides the discussion toward bosses, and the women easily list negative boss traits – jealous, angry and poor at resolving conflicts – and agree that maybe the most important positive boss trait is an ability to understand an employee’s family situation.

“Like I’ve got a sick baby,” one woman says.

Afterward, Tia cuts to the chase in explaining how many of the women view the world, which in their experience is almost always a man’s world.

“A lot of women come in here having been abused by a man,” Tia said. “Biblically, a man is the head of the household. But it’s hard for them to be submissive to a man. It’s hard for them to trust. They wonder what their ulterior motive is.”

Kenyanna Simpson, 32, is in the program fresh out of serving a one-year prison term for felony vandalism after she put sugar in the gas tank of her boyfriend’s car way back when she was 21 because, she says, he was cheating on her.

Like a lot of students here, she counts her sobriety from drugs and alcohol in months – 17. She has an 8-year-old daughter being raised by her niece and sister back home near St. Louis.

“There’s so much love and support in this program,” Simpson said. “They pour it out and let you know you can achieve.”

Tipton, recently released from prison after serving two years for selling drugs, admits, “I had a lot of close calls. I got shot at numerous times. I thank God I’m still alive.”

He has two sons – ages 6 and 14, by different mothers – and he says he’s in contact with them, trying to set an example for them. He now avoids the Frayser neighborhood where he once sold drugs and hung out with gang members, but he still runs into guys from his former life.

“They try to pull me back into the streets,” Tipton said. “I try to be uplifting to them. I know some of the guys are trying to find a way out.”

Tipton is working on his GED. Asked what kind of job he might do, he harkens back to his success pedaling dope.

“I like dealing with people,” he said. “I did real good with sales.”

Laugh if you will, but experts in the rehabilitative field often say that skills used for illegitimate means in the past are, in fact, transferable to legitimate work in the future.

Mealer, for instance, is looking for energetic people to answer her phones.

“I have a friend in the industry who says, ‘You can’t train nice.’ They have to have that personality,” Mealer said.

“Just because you have a felony doesn’t mean you can’t provide a value to my company,” said Ragin, the owner of Advanced Coldforming. “And I feel good that I helped somebody that otherwise would have been supported by tax dollars. Now, he can provide for his family.”

It is the same for Mealer, who said she believes when she hires a HopeWorks graduate she is not only helping that person and her company, but also Memphis.

“This is a test for us,” said Parrish, who is optimistic that the first HopeWorks graduate he’s hired will become a truck driver, but says even if the man were to fall short, he would give another HopeWorks grad a chance.

“It’s an opportunity,” Parrish said. “We’re opening the door and giving them an opportunity to succeed or fail. That’s the way it is in life.”

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