From Prison to Work: STRIVE Job-Readiness Training Leads to a Living Wage for Some in San Diego

How a San Diego job-readiness program offers people a second chance to find meaningful employment

February 7, 2020

Reentering the community can be a jarring experience. Second Chance, a San Diego-based organization, demonstrates how STRIVE job readiness workshops can have a life-changing impact.

“I’m here to help you discover what was already inside of you this entire time.”

Workshop facilitator Rebecca Eusey paces in front of a room full of participants in the STRIVE workshop she’s leading. The students sit, listening, dressed in suits and dress shirts, a nod to the jobs they hope to land after they leave the classroom.

Today marks the halfway point of a four-week STRIVE workshop at Second Chance, a reentry and employment nonprofit in San Diego, California. The program will cover many aspects of employability, such as how to interview for a job, build a resume, and effectively communicate with coworkers and supervisors. The lesson today is on how to recognize and control your emotions at work. After Eusey gives some instructions, the class splits into groups to discuss how to best address negative feelings.

As they work, Eusey explains what she wants students to learn from these activities.

“Where does control live inside your life? Is it inside of you or is it inside of other people?” she asked.

For many of her students, that question is a difficult one to answer. On average, approximately 70 percent of the STRIVE participants at Second Chance have recently left incarceration, and many are attending the class as a condition of parole or probation. Reentering the community can be a jarring experience, whether it happens after 3 years or 25; these students have to navigate where they’re going to live, how they’re going to get there, and what job they can get to pay for it all.

That’s where Second Chance—an organization funded, in part, by the U.S. Department of Labor as part of the STRIVE Fresh Start program—comes in. The organization provides services to youth and adults that include job readiness workshops (such as the one taught by Eusey), as well as housing, substance addiction treatment, and education. For current participants and graduates alike, Second Chance offers access to a computer lab, help finding employment, and assistance with obtaining crucial documents for employment and reentry purposes. And these services seem to be working; as of 2019, the organization had a 68-percent graduation rate and a 91-percent job placement rate for its participants. But the one overarching factor that makes Second Chance so successful? The staff.

“The attitude and the way you’re treated. How they interact. The way that staff interact, it’s like I was never a stranger to them,” said James Gibbs, a Second Chance graduate. “Being in prison for 25 years … it’s very difficult communicating with people on a sensible level. But that was the biggest thing, the personality of the staff and the type of attention they pay to you.”

***

Gibbs was serving a 25-years-to-life sentence when he discovered a leaflet about Second Chance tucked into a book in the prison library that prompted him to look into the program. When he was released in 2018, he enrolled as a participant. Though it wasn’t always easy, Gibbs found that what he learned each day in the STRIVE workshop helped him acclimate to life outside prison.

“They delivered information that was absolutely applicable,” he said. “Every day it was something new I was learning; computer skills, opening your email, things like that.”

With hopes of one day obtaining his contractor’s license and owning his own business, Gibbs had trained in construction and blueprint reading while in prison; but once he got out, he didn’t know where to start. While attending classes at Second Chance, he connected with Isboset “Izzy” Moreno, Second Chance’s senior business services representative.

Moreno’s role at Second Chance is multifaceted. One of his most important responsibilities is liaising with employers and workforce development entities in the community to find out where there may be new job openings for Second Chance graduates.

“You’d be surprised how many employers [know] people who have been involved in the justice system,” he said. “And I ask them, ‘Would you give them a second shot?’ Most of the time, it’s a yes. And then I take it from there.”

He also meets with program participants to identify which of the available jobs—ranging from construction to towing to hospitality—would be the best fit. While part of assessing a person’s readiness to take on a new job is determining whether they can put aside the thoughts and behaviors that led to their criminal justice involvement, Moreno says most graduates are up to the challenge.

“When I get to an employer, I don’t ask them to hire people. I ask them to interview people. And 9 out of 10 times, they love the way they interview,” he said. “They ask if I can send along more people.”

Gibbs was one of the people who was ready for job placement. But when he went to Moreno to get started, he encountered some additional roadblocks due to his criminal conviction.

“I spoke to Izzy, and he said I couldn’t get my contractor’s license, but I could become a handyman,” Gibbs said. “So they helped me get the ball rolling to the place I want to be. Now I’m running a handyman service that is pretty lucrative, actually, and I might be able to start working for myself [full-time] at the beginning of the year.”

Although he’s been successful, Gibbs knows he can always return to Second Chance for help if he needs it—and he has. He connected with case manager Estela Nuñez when he needed to obtain a copy of his birth certificate.

“The biggest part of the program was being able to come back,” Gibbs said. “I can sign in, use the computers, talk to Izzy, see if any other jobs are available. If I’m having an issue getting records from the county, I can go talk to Estela.”

***

Reentering the community can be a jarring experience, whether it happens after 3 years or 25; these students have to navigate where they’re going to live, how they’re going to get there, and what job they can get to pay for it all. 

Gibbs is just one of many participants who have been able to benefit from the critical combination of services and support at Second Chance. According to case manager Nuñez, the success of the program again comes down to the staff’s capacity to care, which is often based on personal experience.

Nuñez, who manages adult cases, also has experience on the other side of the table. A former welfare recipient who experienced homelessness, Nuñez began her career in a Welfare-to-Work program. She now conducts outreach to local jails and serves as the case manager for STRIVE workshop participants, stressing that Second Chance’s staff is the program’s “secret sauce.”

“It’s the attitude we have toward our participants. Maybe it’s because I’ve been there that I have a heart for it, and I know what people will need. Sometimes it’s not just tools, but it’s someone who will believe in you wholeheartedly.”

That sentiment flows all the way from the top. Deb Furlong, Second Chance’s director of program operations, reiterated the importance of having—and retaining—staff members who believe in the importance of connecting with participants.

“The people we work with have been incarcerated for a long time, their life is upside down, they need money, they need stability, they need to believe in themselves,” she said. Furlong makes sure that each participant knows the program is there to support them. “We are so honored that you’re trusting us with your time, and this important piece of your life, which is employment,” she tells participants when they begin the program.

Of course, having that amount of trust in a relatively small staff can be taxing. Furlong described her ideas for the future that would lessen the load on staff as well as expand capacity, which include enhancing data collection on program participation and outcomes as well as integrating selected programs in the adult and youth divisions to maximize resources and staff.

For now, the program is working, to the benefit of its participants and the employers in the community who are gaining workers. Ed Toledo, a participant in Eusey’s STRIVE class, admits he initially came to Second Chance just to get assistance obtaining a copy of his birth certificate and had no intention of staying for the whole program. But after one day in Eusey’s class, he said she made him see opportunities opening up in front of him.

“I have a 10-year employment gap. I’ve been incarcerated in four different states, two different countries, I’ve visited federal institutions in three separate states. I’m bringing a lot of luggage,” he said. “And finally, for the first time in my life, I’ve decided to step away and let somebody else who knows how to do this thing, get it done.”

Or, as Gibbs puts it succinctly, “San Diego is fortunate to have Second Chance, and I believe a lot of other places would be, too.”

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