Food trailer aims to give ex-prisoners second chance

By Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — When Drew Doll managed Just a Clean House, a transitional home in Durham for men getting out of prison, he found that just over half the residents returned to prison, and those who were able to land “under-the-table” work as day laborers had a tough time getting stable employment.

And as an accountant for the Durham Economic Resource Center, an agency that provides job training and development for people who face high barriers to employment, he saw that employment agencies typically focus on filling jobs, not on “how to get jobs for people who are hard to employ.”

So he started thinking about how to “create an organization designed to employ people where a criminal conviction is what you have to have coming in the door.”

His solution is Second Helpings, an initiative developed by three partner groups to provide jobs and support services for men and women after they leave prison.

The effort is modeled on Homeboy Industries, a Los Angles nonprofit that a Jesuit priest founded in 1984 to provide jobs and education as an alternative for gang members.

According to a study at UCLA, 70 percent of Homeboy Industries clients who complete an 18-month employment program stay out of prison and find jobs, compared to the 70 percent of the men and women exiting the California prison system who return.

In Durham, in comparison, among the estimated 600 to 700 men and women who return from prison every year, 80 percent of them lack education credentials and practical work experience and, after a  year, 60 percent still do not have jobs.

Partners in Second Helpings include the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, a volunteer-based group that provides 12 “faith teams” that each partners one-on-one for at least a year with an individual getting out of prison; the Durham County Criminal Justice Resource Center, a county agency that provides case managers and support services for former prisoners; and Core Catering, a catering company that provides lunch for the Religious Coalition’s monthly meetings and its biweekly dinners for families of victims of violence, and uses its excess food to package and freeze meals that volunteers deliver each week to people in need, including families of victims of violent crimes.

Second Helpings needs $25,000 to buy and equip a food trailer and cover its first two to three months of operating costs. It is seeking startup support from foundations and companies, particularly in the food-service industry, and expects to be self-sustaining after three months.

As one of five semifinalists in a competition sponsored by Triangle Community Foundation that attracted over 50 collaborative proposals for innovative solutions to community needs, Second Helpings was awarded a $7,000 grant.

The goal, Doll says, is to provide jobs, training and support to help prepare former prisoners for permanent employment.

Each person Second Helpings employs will be less likely to return to prison, will save the state the $30,000 annual cost of maintaining a person in prison, and will add to the pool of prospective employees for local food-service jobs, Doll says.

“Businesses in food services and hospitality tend to have high employee turnover, largely because many of the people they hire don’t know how to keep a job,” he says.

Marcia Owen, executive director of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, says the key to the collaborative effort will be linking ex-prisoners with resources and support.

“Research shows the greatest risk to recidivism is not having connections,” she says. “It is the relationships of equality and respect and dignity that keep us safe.”

Patricia Jenkins Eder, owner of Core Catering, says Second Helpings can be “a launching pad for people re-entering the workforce, giving them the opportunity to maintain a stable position in a company that then can lead them to other opportunities.”

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