John Williams’ dream is to become a licensed barber. After, as he puts it, “wasting half my life on the streets of Washington, D.C., and Wilmington,” he decided when he headed to prison in 2009 that that incarceration would be his last.
He was inside for four years, during which time he worked on getting his GED and changing his outlook.
“Before, it was drugs. Drugs controlled the thoughts of my mind. I would do anything to get drugs,” he said. “From [prison], I asked God to help me; I put all my troubles in his hands.”
After his release last year Williams, 49, connected with Linda Rawley, then the Wilmington Police Department’s offender re-entry specialist. She enrolled him in the city’s program designed to integrate former prisoners back into the community.
“We started with a class of six, but the only one who finished was me,” Williams said.
Once he exited the program, Williams completed the one remaining requirement for his GED and, diploma in hand, tackled his next goal: training for a career while staying clean and straight. He started Cape Fear Community College’s barber school in January. If he completes the program and gets his license, he has a job waiting for him in a relative’s shop.
Williams is one of many offenders who return to the community, resolved to make a change but limited by their records and unaware of available resources.
If the community does not step up with those resources – including employment opportunities – mounting financial and social pressures can drive ex-offenders back to crime as the only immediate source of income, Rawley said.
“They need someone to hold their hand,” said the Rev. Don Skinner, founder and executive director of Phoenix Employment Ministry. The organization takes a compassionate but no-nonsense approach in helping the sheltered homeless and others with incomes below the poverty level – people whom Skinner terms “wounded souls” – find and keep
Everyone benefits when at-risk young people are given positive alternatives to gang involvement, and when adults who’ve been incarcerated can become job ready and then find employment, say local officials, including Connie Majure-Rhett, president and CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce.
“The business community needs to be involved in solving the root of the problem by helping at-risk youth, which is both the right thing to do and more economical than waiting to fight crime on the streets,” she said. “Crime has the potential to adversely affect many areas of our economy, from tourism to business recruitment to the safety of our employees.”
New Hanover County district attorney Ben David has been vocal about the need for a broad-based response to the issues that contribute to youth gang membership and crime in the first place and that prevent individuals in poverty, especially those with criminal records, from getting the opportunities they need to turn their lives around.
In a talk at the Greater Wilmington Business Journal’s Power Breakfast in December, David challenged the business community to provide three things: time, jobs and money to address the issue.
“If you run a business, give your employees two hours off each week to volunteer with the 45 nonprofit Blue Ribbon Commission partner organizations,” he said, also charging business owners to find jobs for young people and former offenders.
He also alluded to an initiative to “put 300 hometown kids to work” as well as an upcoming event focused on expunging the records of former offenders to make it easier for them to find employment.
“If they’ve done their time, it’s time to bring them back into this community,” David said in his talk.
Williams knows how it feels to wear what David calls the “scarlet letter.” Despite his GED, his resolve and his barber school enrollment, he has been unable to find a day job to support himself and his wife while he takes evening barber classes.
“I prepare myself for rejection,” he said of his job search. “But I am a people person; I have a positive message. I have been blessed ever since I left incarceration, and I’m proud of myself. I see myself doing positive things and know I can do these things.”
The issues that contribute to a community’s crime rate are many and complex, but at the root is a person’s perceived lack of options and feelings of hopelessness, said Chris Nelson, executive director of United Way of the Cape Fear Area.
“Add to that poverty and the lack of role models, especially male role models,” he said.
Nelson cited a Blue Ribbon Commission survey of 87 homes in the Northside neighborhood in Wilmington. Only four of the households had a father in residence.
Providing solutions to prevent youngsters from becoming involved in crime and to address the needs of those seeking to make changes after serving time “cannot be one group’s problem; it has to be a community issue that we all take a hand in,” Rawley said.
Rawley was able to serve more than 100 individuals through Wilmington’s Re-Entry Program. The supporting grant, however, has run out, leaving no official service in place. In her current capacity as Wilmington Police Department’s public affairs officer, Rawley can provide advice to needy individuals but must look to other segments of the community for the complex work of crime prevention and intervention.
Last summer’s gang-related violence that spilled out of several low-income neighborhoods spurred the city to hold a series of public sessions on the topic of crime prevention.
There’s increased public attention on the work that Wilmington’s Blue Ribbon Commission is doing in the Northside neighborhood’s Youth Enrichment Zone to provide more opportunities for young people, working through D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy and youth-focused programs such as Dreams Inc. and Kids Making It, which, according to Nelson, are highly successful in putting kids on a positive path.
“Both organizations are nationally recognized for what they do. They need more resources so they can help more kids,” he added.
Wilmington mayor Bill Saffo applauds what the Blue Ribbon Commission has done, but said he wants to make sure that efforts like the Youth Enrichment Zone initiatives are sustainable and supported by the business community. He said he was encouraged by the $21,000 raised thus far toward the $75,000 cost of a pilot program this summer at Virgo.
“People coming to the forums are really concerned and want to help. Hopefully, out of these forums we’ll come up with solutions,” Saffo said.
Phoenix Employment Ministry fights crime through employment. Founded in 2002, the organization helps participants define their goals, understand themselves a bit better and build job-hunting and job-holding skills.
At the first day of orientation recently for a group of 11 new clients, Skinner and job program director Will Rikard emphasized that job hunting is a job in itself, and that promptness, professional attire and persistence are essential.
Skinner says that about 50 percent of Phoenix clients have a criminal record. Through counseling and training in resume writing and interviewing techniques – and a lot of tough love – Phoenix staffers and volunteers strive to help their clients see past obstacles to opportunities,.
“Companies that call us for workers ask for achievers,” Skinner said.
Helping Wilmington area individuals become “job ready” is the mission of a diverse mix of groups, including:
Cape Fear Community College: employment skills training and mentoring
Cape Fear Literacy Council: remedial education that includes basic literacy and mentoring
Child Advocacy and Parenting Place: life skills, empowerment and mentoring
Communities in Schools: remedial education, soft skills and mentoring
Leading Into New Communities (LINC):soft-skills training, eliminating risk factors, on-the-job training
ResCare: employment skills training, job counseling, on-the-job training, employment matchmaking, helps employers navigate potential tax write-offs and, with employer commitment, pays half the first three months’ salary if the job pay qualifies
United Way of the Cape Fear Area:connects potential program participants with potential employment opportunities
YWCA: helps individuals re-enter the workplace through training and financial assistance