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The OIC of Wilson launched a program last week aimed to give young adult offenders not only a pathway to a successful career, but hope to rebuild their lives after prison.
The agency received a $718,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to strengthen access for those who are exiting the correctional system to reenter the workforce in their community.
The federal reentry grant project will support the improvement and effectiveness of researched-based, evidence-informed services that lead to better opportunities and outcomes for eligible participants who have had a run in with the law, officials said.
“Everyone deserves a second chance,” said Jesse Raudales, the Opportunities Industrialization Center’s director of operations. “Of course they have background issues, but we are trying to train these individuals and give them an opportunity to make them better citizens.”
The OIC’s reentry program is called SOAR — Skills Opportunities Achievement Responsibility — and will open career development opportunities for young adults ages 18-24 who have had a criminal past.
OIC staff along with various community partners will provide vocational and work-readiness training. They will also connect those individuals with local employers and assist in job placement and educational services.
The goal is to prevent them from becoming repeat offenders, Raudales said.
“They have to get a skill set or a trade certification,” he said. “They want us to get them a career, not just a job. It’s a career pathway with a trade.”
The OIC will also work in collaboration with a host of partners including Wilson Community College, where participants will get trained and certified through the school’s programs.
“There is funding in there for each participant that will pay for that,” Raudales said.
The agency will use the grant funding to place 130 young adults, ages 18-24, into careers over the next three years. The program will track participants for nine months after they have been place into a career.
The SOAR program will offer industry-recognized credentials including masonry and trowel trades, ServSafe food service certifications and training in culinary arts, forklift and heavy equipment operation, industrial welding and backhoe operations.
‘THEY NEED CHANCE AND OPPORTUNITY’
During 2016, there were 99 individuals ages 18-24 who were on supervised probation or post-release supervision that used the city of Wilson’s ZIP codes, according to the N.C. Department of Public Safety.
There were 56 individuals in that same age range who lived in Wilson County, state figures show.
When offenders leave prison, they face many challenges that can stymie their ability to reenter the workforce in their community, officials said. And oftentimes, they are left behind.
But the SOAR program will tap into their potential and get offenders on the right track by keeping them from entering the system again.
“They want to learn,” Raudales said. “They are capable of learning. They need chance and opportunity.”
Raudales said if those same individuals go out and commit more crimes and reenter the system again, it costs taxpayers more money.
“We want to catch them while they’re young and we want to make sure they are not repeat offenders,” he said. “The percentage rate is so high for repeat offenders. If you get out and no one gives you an opportunity, what are you going to do? You’re going to go out and try to survive on the streets.”
The OIC is also working with nonprofits, businesses and government including the Nash County Correctional Institution, Wilson County Probation Office, the city of Wilson, Wilson Police Department, Wilson County Sheriff’s Office and N.C. Department of Public Safety in Raleigh.
The OIC also has an advisory board made up of various community stakeholders for the reentry program as well.
‘WITHOUT HOPE, YOU CAN’T DREAM’
For more than 40 years, the OIC of Wilson has been a driving force in the Wilson community in training, education and placing people in jobs. And the nonprofit works closely with businesses and industries throughout Wilson and surrounding counties.
Out of the 352 people the OIC placed back into the workforce last year, 100 of them would have been eligible for this reentry grant program, Raudales said.
Howard Jones, founder and OIC president, has made it his legacy to open up a world of possibilities to those who are willing to better themselves so that they can stop the cycle of poverty.
“It’s like Mr. Jones says, ‘We have to give them hope,’” Raudales said. “Without hope, you can’t dream and without hope, you don’t have anything. We are their last sign of hope.”