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- 2007 - August - 24th -

Operation New Hope helps former felons be ‘Ready4Work’

David Ball

Ruthie Richardson, a smart, well-spoken and personable 26-year-old, went into her last job hunt with more than five years of office and clerical experience and a solid list of references. McDonald’s wanted nothing to do with her.

“I cried every single day,” said Richardson, who in May 2005 was released from an 11-month sentence for felony grand theft. More rejections followed, and she realized her mistake may have cost her not only a chance at a fulfilling career, but simply a decent job.

But after months of tear-filled interviews and closed doors, Richardson was referred to Jacksonville-based Operation New Hope and its Ready4Work program, which specializes in giving ex-convicts a second chance.

“I was having problems internally because I felt so stupid, but they never looked at me like that,” said Richardson. “They treated me like a smart person again.”

Armed with confidence and new interview skills, Richardson soon landed a logistics position at Beaver Street Fisheries, where she’s worked for more than two years. Richardson is one of nearly 1,000 people since 2003 who have been trained through Ready4Work, a program now duplicated in 17 other U.S. cities.

The program was the brainchild of Operation New Hope President Kevin Gay and evolved out of his already established faith-based inner-city redevelopment program based in Springfield. Gay, who comes from a for-proft corporate background, secured a $1 million White House grant to launch the 3-year pilot program, and a recent report shows it has been a success.

Gay said if his program can continue to grow, Jacksonville residents may soon see a significant decrease in the amount of murders and other violent acts by taking people out of the cycle of crime and into a suit and tie.

“A vast majority of murders were done by folks who had first committed petty crimes and had escalated,” said Gay. “Studies have shown that the only promise of keeping people from going back to prison is keeping a job.”

Gay said every year around 1,700 men and women come back to Jacksonville from state and federal prisons, while another 55,000 are released from county jails. In Florida, one in five men are rearrested within a year of their release. But in Gay’s Ready4Work, that statistic drops to only one in 20, or 5 percent.

“I needed to be willing to sit down with employers and find out the barriers to employing this part of our population,” said Gay. “They said they didn’t want any surprises, and they wanted an employee that’s marketable.”

Participants can be between the ages of 18 and 45 and must not have been charged with a violent or sexual offense within the last year. Once enrolled, they begin with a two- to five-week training course to learn about marketing themselves to employers, finding jobs online and the interview process, particularly about how to address their criminal past. They also receive free transportation to and from class as well as new clothes.

They then interview at some of the 110 local employers, usually in manufacturing, restaurants and other trades, who have partnered with the program.

One recent participant was 26-year-old Jessica Enriquez, who was jailed for selling drugs and was recently given an administrative position at Beaver Street Fisheries.

“This is really the best job I’ve ever had,” said Enriquez, who through the Ready4Work program learned important lessons on how to break from old habits and negative influences. “I’ve done a complete 360. I’m even thinking about going back to school.”

Nick Malie, human resources director for Beaver Street, said his company has offered employment to ex-convicts for several years with no regrets.

“It seems that when they are given a second chance, they tend to turn out to be exceptional employees,” said Malie. “I think other businesses should look at these employees if they can. For us, it was the right thing to do.”

Gay said he hopes other employers look to partner with the program, which is now without the White House grant money and is occasionally funded with Gay’s own cash. The program’s $900,000 budget is funded mostly through the Department of Corrections and small contributions from the City of Jacksonville, although that is slowly shrinking with the current budget crunch.

Gay estimates it costs $4,200 for each ex-convict to go through the program, but it saves taxpayers the higher costs of that person being rearrested, tried and incarcerated.

“People are learning about the value of what we are doing,” said Gay. “I think if we can start working with 1,000 people each year, you will see a real difference in the landscape of Jacksonville, both the crime element and the economy.”

For more information on Project New Hope and the Ready4Work program, visit www.ready4work.com or call 425-6001.

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