Second: Chance…. But Who’s Counting?

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The hard fact is, some people commit multiple crimes and serve more than one sentence, before getting it right. Aren’t they just as human as the rest of us? How rare it is for humans to make a mistake only once. When we finally get it right, when we finally manage to overcome our own patterns of failure or misbehavior, we begin to build from the ground up our new-found credibility and standing, in whatever community we’re in. No longer errant (in whatever way we were previously errant), we bring our better selves to the world.

For someone raised in violence, deprived at home, untaught at school, and groomed for crime, their emergence from incarceration offers the rest of us a chance to get it right, to make this a world of opportunity and new beginning. Maybe it’s us, not them, who are getting a second chance. Either way, it can take several “second” chances to get it right.

Kenny had no father in his life, and his mother fed her addiction more than him. Both school and the streets became a battleground. By the time he turned 18, he had been tried and convicted for a violent crime, and went on to serve 20 straight years. When he got out of prison, Kenny was shell-shocked, certain there was nothing for him, and unsure of what to do.

After the first day of job readiness class at Project Return, Kenny had sat through lots of information about how to gain employment, and he asked out loud, “Is it true? Is it really possible that I can get a job?” We were determined to get it right for Kenny. He was determined himself, as well as bright, energetic, likable. This world was going to get a second chance at Kenny having a decent life.

Little did we know that we would need more than one shot to get it right. We blew our first second chance. Kenny had figured out that there were lots of people applying for the same positions in our urban area, so he wanted to try for jobs in adjacent counties where his odds might be better. In support of his strategy, we helped him identify the job openings and provided special, more expensive bus passes to get him to these distant prospective job sites. So far, so good. But we later learned that Kenny quickly scored a job offer, only to calculate that he couldn’t afford what it would cost him to get to and from work until he got his first paycheck, and he turned the job down! We had failed to communicate sufficiently that indeed we would have supplied him with those pricey bus passes up until his receipt of the first paycheck. We helped him get back in touch with that employer, but the position was filled.

Our second second chance fell terribly short. Sensing his urgency and not wanting him to be without income too much longer, we lined Kenny up for an interview with a temp-to-hire agency in town, where there were immediate openings. In his interview, he told them about his criminal background, and “the boss” said it was not a problem – he was hired! We quickly got him outfitted with work clothes and boots to start on the following Monday morning. After one week, however, Kenny was back in our office. He’d worked a full five days, but on that Friday he was told that “the big boss” (the boss of the man who’d hired him) would not allow his criminal background, and Kenny was let go……and not paid! A full week of work – which was a week of not looking for other work – and he had nothing to show for it.

Our third second chance was just a mismatch. Through our connection with a large waste management company, we got Kenny hired on at one of the massive garbage collection sites, where he would work as, essentially, a sorter of trash. He lasted barely a week. Turns out, some people just don’t have the stomach for the intensively unpleasant task of handling waste material, and Kenny is one of those.

Fortunately for Kenny, he had one huge factor in his favor – beyond just being the great person that he is – and that was his grandparents. He had told us early on that all his life he had always known that his grandmother loved him. (And, in our world, one loving adult figure is a whole lot more than zero.) He was living with his grandparents, who had aged considerably in the time Kenny had been incarcerated, and he was able to do a lot of work around the house to take care of them, as well as attending to his grandmother during a brief-but-scary hospital stay. Loving them, and being loved by them, must have been sustaining throughout these employment catastrophes….

…..Because we weren’t done yet. Our fourth second chance was ill-fated as well. We got a call from a family-owned tire shop that was desperately in need of an extra worker. Kenny had solid automotive and mechanical skills, and it was easy to imagine him excelling there. He was hired immediately. But by the end of the week, they’d parted ways. According to Kenny, they wouldn’t talk with him, and ignored him, even excluding him from the work; he suspected they, being a white southern family, didn’t want Kenny, a dark-skinned African-American, in the shop, and in fact before Kenny was gone they’d brought in a white man to do the work and treated him entirely differently. According to the employer, Kenny just sat around and didn’t do anything, and they couldn’t get him to work. We knew Kenny to be industrious – just about every time we phoned him at his grandparents’ house, he’d be out mowing one neighbor’s yard or doing odd jobs for another – and really couldn’t sync up this characterization of laziness with the energetic man we knew.

But, back to the drawing board. And the fifth time was a charm. Thank goodness for “second” chances! And for the indomitable spirit of a man. (And for the perseverance of an entire agency.) Kenny found a job that he loved with a local moving company, where he did hard work and was treated well. The heavy lifting, the driving, the interaction with other hard-working people, the sense of completion and a job well-done – these are the main aspects of this job that made Kenny happy, and makes our community a better place.

Not quite better enough, though, because the moving job was part-time and not enough for a hard-working man. With the good references and solid work record at the moving company, Kenny hit the job-search trail again, and this time scored an amazing job with an automotive shop. If you’re still counting, this was the sixth second chance! Score! He’s been there for nine months and loves it – both the work and the camaraderie of his co-workers. His days are industrious and even Kenny is a little tired at the end of the workday. But not too tired to tend to his loving grandparents and even mow one of their neighbor’s yards.

Congratulations, World. On our sixth second chance, we got it right.

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