Last week, surrounded by a crowd of well-wishers, Jeremiah Davis was honored with an award. Davis is no politician or celebrity, but a man who has been blessed with a second chance.
The occasion was Goodwill of Central & Southern Indiana’s Annual Awards Breakfast, and Davis, who was there to accept the Employment Achievement Award, was bestowed an additional recognition, Goodwill’s Achiever of the Year.
“It was breathtaking,” he said. “It was a surprise.”
About six years ago, the award winner was in a much different space. After serving 11 months in Marion County Jail II, Davis went to work release for one month, after which he took a temporary position with Goodwill. After his assignment was completed, he stayed persistent, consistently calling and checking in to see if there were any positions available. Davis also pounded the pavement around town, seeking employment at 45 to 50 jobs, each of which he was turned down for.
“It was virtually impossible to get employed because you’ve got this, this thing that you’ve come to terms with and grown from, and you still don’t get the opportunity to showcase that you’ve changed,” he said.
“It’s hard when you go to an interview and you have your portfolio and you’re dressed up and you think you’re good to go, and then that one little thing throws you off. After so long I tried not to let it get to me, but it does.”
Davis’ story is not unlike many others who have been convicted and served time on felony offenses. Each year, thousands of ex-offenders, now commonly referred to as returning citizens, find themselves coming back to environments that are either ill-equipped or completely unwilling to assist in their assimilation back into life on the outside. Though their debt to society has been paid, many, like Davis shared, feel that their punishment is relived each time they are denied employment based on their past. Some, finding no respite or opportunity, eventually go back to whatever it is they were doing that got them in trouble before and wind up back in the system.
Programs that assist in re-entry can be the key to lowering the rates of recidivism. Statistics show that in Indiana, of the formerly incarcerated that participated in work release programs, 31 percent were less likely to return to prison.
Davis stressed that he wanted to become a provider for his children and live out the messages he taught them about staying determined and never giving up.
“I knew if that was the case, I would feel overly defeated,” he said.
When Davis was eventually re-hired by Goodwill, he took full advantage of the various resources available to him, one being the Goodwill Guides Program. While in the program, he attended a session on the power of having a positive attitude. He described the experience as a true turning point for him. “I realized that I was my biggest (barrier to) being successful, not the jobs I wasn’t getting or the felony I had. That wasn’t the biggest thing; it was actually myself, because I wasn’t doing what was necessary to get to where I wanted to be. You can let those things define you, but those are gonna keep you crippled from moving to the next level,” said Davis.
The Goodwill Guides Program, which has been in existence for six years, has professionals in the areas of mental health, education, financial literacy, wellness and other areas work alongside Goodwill employees.
Betsy Delgado, Goodwill’s vice president of Mission and Education Initiatives, said that the goal of the initiative is centered on self-efficacy.
“They go in and ask people, ‘What’s your dream around employment, education and health?’ So as our guides build relationships, they learn a lot about them,” she said.
Some of the employees’ most immediate needs are around transportation, housing and food. Guides act as a bridge to community resources and provide continual support to those involved for as long as they need it. The guides visit stores monthly or bi-monthly and also work with people in and out of the store atmosphere.
Delgado said that since the program’s inception, guides have assisted more than 2,000 people.
“The dignity of work is something that is core to our values. So over 103 years, that has evolved into … understanding that there are a number of steps and resources that folks need to be able to do that,” she said, adding that Goodwill is committed to hiring, at a high rate, individuals with significant barriers to employment — particularly those with a criminal background and those that are differently abled mentally and physically. She noted that Davis’ story is a perfect example of those core values in action.
“We don’t want to always focus on the negative. Yes, people come to us with a lot of barriers, but they also come to us with strengths, so let’s work on those strengths in order to help this person build their own capacity.”
Davis, who currently manages more than 80 employees at the Greenwood Outlet store — 75 percent of whom face barriers to employment of their own, according to Goodwill — said he enjoys being in the position to help others reach their potential.
“Every day I feel like I’m giving back, so when I’m in here I’m able to see people transform,” he said. “It feels good, because I see where I was at, and see them and it’s like a reflection. It can almost be emotional. It’s overwhelming. Every day is a giving back moment.”
EBONY MARIE CHAPPEL @EbonyTheWriter