Goodwill program gives people a 2nd chance at a career

Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
The Detroit News

Detroit — When he was released from prison four months ago after serving nearly 20 years, Melvin Long had no marketable skills and no idea what his next step would be. He just knew he never wanted to go back.

"I've been locked up all my adult life," said the 38-year-old Detroiter. "I have a checkered past, being a convicted felon, and I'm looking for a second chance."

He's gotten just that in Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit's Green Works, which has a program that trains, hires and ultimately hopes to place convicted felons in other jobs.

Every day, Long gets himself up and gets to the recycling plant on the city's east side where he is enrolled in one of the nonprofit's newest programs, a welding class.

If he continues to show up, study hard and learn the skills, within a few months he should be a level-one certified welder, which, in a time when skilled tradespeople are in short supply, is definitely a marketable skill.

When people think of Goodwill they might think of the thrift stores that were a large part of their business since the nonprofit's inception in 1921. But with the changing demands of the economy and the challenge of recidivism, Goodwill is focusing more on creating a path to work for people who have lost their way, says Green Works President Jay Wilber, a retired General Motors executive.

"If we can't figure out how to help them get training and jobs, we might as well put the money into finishing that jail downtown because that's where they are going to end up," he said.

At the Green Works plant, 70 full-time workers and 30 trainees recycle transformers, oil filters and other materials, primarily from their main customer, DTE Energy. Not everyone who works there has a criminal past, but many do.

For others who are just coming out of the prison system, there are opportunities to train for certifications in safety, forklift driving and welding.

Students in the welding class don't get paid to attend class, but they do get transportation help if they need it. In the year since the classes began, every person who followed through on the class tested and received certification. Some have gone on to land jobs. Only one person has gone back to prison.

"Once they pay their debt to society, most come out saying they never want to go back there again," said Wilber. "But when they get back to the city and there's no jobs and no way for them to survive, they are going to find some way to live."

Trainees chart new course

The hope with the classes and through the jobs is that the way to survive won't have to lead back to the Michigan Department of Corrections.

"We have a high success rate because they get to leave their bags at the door," he said. "We treat everybody with dignity and respect. We're more interested in trying to figure out what skills they are lacking and how we can help improve that."

Beyond the welding classes, Green Works offers an opportunity for training and full-time employment at the recycling facility.

Merle Fountain came to the facility after serving 11 years in prison. As a trainee, he worked so hard and was so dedicated to his job, that they ended up creating a full-time position for him maintaining the machines at the facility. Now, he's studying up with a plan to go to college to become an engineer. He's newly married and supporting his family.

"I want people to know you can change, but you've got to work hard," he said. "You've got to take advantage of these programs they're offering."

It was a similar story for Horace Randolph. He was never incarcerated, but he knows he came close.

"Twenty years ago, I went into rehab," said Randolph. "Before that it was nothing but drinking, drugging and thugging."

It's a far cry from the man he is now, someone who has held down a steady job for two decades and has moved up to become operations manager at the facility. He said he never expected to live to 50. He's 67 now.

"If you don't want to go back, you have to do whatever it takes to stay on the straight and narrow," he said. "If you want something you've never had, you've got to do something you've never done."

Successful students honored

Under the tutelage of Detroiter Julius Norman, a retired Iron Worker from Local 25, the welding students are building their futures, one corner joint at a time.

Past students have helped build welding bays on the shop floor. The current students are not quite ready to pick up the heavy machinery yet. They are studying safety and will soon have a test on blueprints and understanding the equipment.

Once they do move on to actual welding, they will head into an area where a sign informs them, "through this gate pass the finest future welders in America. Next to that is a plaque with all the names of the people who have successfully passed the course.

"I'll stack my welders up against anyone," said Norman, who has been teaching classes for a year. He ends every class by having the students read for 20 minutes from the book "Think and Grow Rich," by Napoleon Hill.

"It's not about getting rich, it's about leaving with a positive attitude," he said. "Because if you don't have that attitude you don't have that discipline."

For his part, Long is looking forward to what the future could hold as he follows in the footsteps of those who came before him.

"It definitely inspires me," he said. "That they have been able to find work and not be judged by their past."

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