I will admit that I’ve always been a little afraid of people who spent time in prison. That changed when our JustFaith group visited the Durham Economic Resource Center (DERC) in March. As a group of eight men and women in a job training program told their stories, I was captivated by their smiles, openness, camaraderie and sense of hope.
I also was shocked at some of the barriers they face after serving time for felonies. Many were recovering addicts wanting a fresh start but who had experienced years of inability to find jobs. Rozetta Lynch, a mother of two, said she hasn’t had any charges since 2008 but still experiences discrimination due to her criminal record. She was hired by UPS, then quickly fired after they completed a criminal background check. “I’m trying not to get discouraged,” she said.
One major barrier to employment is the box on applications that asks about felony convictions. Most employers screen out applicants who check that box, the group said. Even when they get interviews, other factors are against them, such as not owning a car. “A lot of employers won’t hire people who are on the city bus system because the buses are not reliable,” said Tammy Triplett.
DERC has stepped in to help ex-felons get jobs that pay a living wage. The agency, funded in part by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, offers a job training program for people at high risk of remaining unemployed. Trainees get work experience in a clothing warehouse, where they are required to show up on time and meet performance standards. They also receive training in computer skills, money management, resumes, and interviewing.
“It helps your self-esteem to learn how to get in front of people and make eye contact and talk,” Triplett said. “If you are a drug addict or have a prison record, your self-esteem is like zero,” she said.
Participants spoke of having a new sense of hope and smiled when telling how program director Fred Stoppelkamp makes them do jumping jacks when they say, “I can’t.”
“I thank DERC every day,” said Wyatt Pettiford. “I feel a whole different way going to classes.”