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Real Second Chances for Chicago Ex-Offenders

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The North Lawndale Employment Network and Trinity Hospital Partnership

Vincent Thomas spent three years in jail. When he got out, he couldn't find work. As far as he was concerned, he wore a big "X" on his chest to every job interview. The "X" stood for ex-offender.

"I spent at least three years trying to find a job," he says today. "I couldn't land a job, just a little work on the side. No one would trust me. They just threw my application in the garbage when they saw I was an ex-offender."

Life is changing for Thomas thanks to his efforts and the efforts of a unique business and community partnership supported by The Hitachi Foundation.

In Chicago, the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) joined together with Trinity Hospital, part of the Advocate Healthcare network, to break down a barrier that neither one could overcome alone: the stereotypes that keep ex-offenders from working in the healthcare sector.

"The experience of North Lawndale Employment Network and Trinity Hospital clearly shows how a well crafted partnership can expand the mission of both participants," says Barbara Dyer, president and CEO of The Hitachi Foundation. "And they remind us that making significant gains often entails a willingness to take risks."

The partnership began to take shape in the fall of 2002. At the time Hedy Gist, Coordinator of Volunteer/Community Service Programs at Trinity, had been sitting on a task force convened by Congressman Danny K. Davis dedicated to helping ex-offenders successfully return to the community. The Congressman pointed Gist toward NLEN, telling her they were looking for businesses that could provide training and employment opportunities for ex-offenders. NLEN had, for quite some time, been running a program called U-Turn, a job preparation and skills development program for ex-offenders.

Gist went to a meeting hosted by NLEN. That's where she met Tom Wetzel, NLEN's Director of Business Relations/Innovations. "As I sat there and listened," Gist recalls, "I thought this could be a unique opportunity to have ex-offenders train at our facility and become marketable. I knew that environmental services presented a window of opportunity."

Wetzel and Gist spent a long time working together, identifying each and every obstacle that could stand in the way of placing ex-offenders in Trinity Hospital and determining how they would be overcome. "Over the next few months, it really was a team effort between us to negotiate a training program at the hospital. The task was how to make the goal of the partnership to be employment, not just training for the ex-offenders."

"The greatest challenge," Wetzel says, "was the combination of ex-offenders and healthcare. I'ts kind of a radical idea. There's the obvious perception surrounding ex-offenders. Combine that with the fact that children and the elderly are coming to the hospital for care, and in people's minds it doesn't mix very well. This was true among hospital staff. It's pretty hard to overcome that perception."

Gist and Wetzel decided they had to take a bit of a risk. First, they sought a commitment from the hospital to do nothing more than provide an unpaid training opportunity to ex-offenders. "Coming into the hospital as volunteers got us around a lot of the obstacles. We weren't proposing direct employment. Frankly, if we had gone right to the hospital's human resources staff and suggested hiring ex-offenders, I don't think we would have got anywhere."

Second, Gist went to the top of the hospital hierarchy. "I introduced the idea to the president of the hospital. He really shocked me," she says. "I anticipated a fight. Advocate Healthcare being as large as it is, this would be going out on the edge. But his father was a business owner who used to give ex-offenders a second chance by hiring them. He was very supportive."

So the groundwork was laid for a partnership between NLEN and Trinity Hospital. Keep in mind though, that the two organizations started out with only an agreement to offer a training opportunity at the hospital, not employment. Indeed, no formal agreement to offer employment has ever been forged. But, as we shall see, employment opportunities continue to unfold.

Here's how the partnership works. NLEN's U-Turn program is a four-week work readiness course for ex-offenders. Three to four times a year, Wetzel recruits a group of U-Turn graduates -- sometimes as few as two, sometimes as many as six -- to participate in the Trinity training program. These U-Turn graduates then go through an extensive screening process that includes background checks, personality testing, and complete physicals including blood work, TB screens, and drug testing. From there, they begin the training program at Trinity.

The U-Turn graduates work approximately six hours a day for three weeks at the hospital, unpaid. Most of the work is in environmental services though some of the ex-offenders have recently started working in nutritional services as dietary aides. NLEN provides the transportation and Trinity Hospital provides lunch each day. "They learn the skills," reports Wetzel. "It's really a chance for them to get a foot in the door and prove themselves."

There is no promise of employment at the end of the three weeks. But, in most cases, jobs have been waiting. Of the 15 individuals who have gone through the program, 12 have ended up with full-time jobs at Trinity. Some have started part-time and moved to full-time and, now, some graduates of the program are being placed in a “registry position” -- individuals who fill in when employees are on vacation or otherwise absent -- that can still result in 30 to 35 hours of work per week.

The jobs at Trinity provide good pay and benefits. The Environmental Services positions pay $10-$10.50 per hour to start and offer full benefits of health care insurance and retirement. Full time positions in Nutritional Services start at $9-$9.50 per hour.

"What has been so special," says Gist, "is that the hospital has never promised anything more than training. We were not in a position to say we will have jobs after they complete the training. But every time we've had a group graduate there have nearly always been openings. Due to the support these men and women get from NLEN, they come here and smash all the stereotypes that people may hold about working with ex-offenders."

"I remember all the faces the first time the trainees come through the hospital door -- the fear, the anticipation of not knowing what is to come. I've seen lives change, and being part of that is just phenomenal. Things we take for granted -- like buying a car or renting an apartment -- are huge hurdles for ex-offenders. To know we are part of helping them over these hurdles is unbelievable."

Besides the personal satisfaction Gist and her colleagues experience, this partnership has allowed Trinity to take part of its mission beyond earlier boundaries. "It's important that the hospital reach out to the community, in addition to providing health and social services," Gist notes. "This program allows Trinity to reach out a step further and venture into an area of community service they would have never thought of. This is community outreach at a level the hospital's leadership never could have envisioned. It makes us proud, especially realizing that no other hospital in Illinois is yet to try this."

Wetzel reports that, thanks to the success of their partnership with Trinity Hospital, firm plans are in place for building a similar program with at least one more hospital in the Chicago area.

Vincent Thomas, by the way, has worked full-time at Trinity for two years, where he now trains ex-offenders who are participating in the NLEN/Trinity partnership. He received the prestigious MVP award, given to the hospital employee who best exemplifies the institution's Mission, Value, and Philosophy. Currently, he is taking classes that will lead to a GED.

The prospects and challenges facing ex-offenders -- predominantly, but not exclusively, male -- are a particular concern for North Lawndale. Fifty-six percent of neighborhood residents have been in contact with the law -- including arrests and detentions as well as convictions. Because of that experience, NLEN has developed and refined their programs specifically to meet the needs of ex-offenders.
The North Lawndale Employment Network's U-Turn program prepares ex-offenders for gainful employment, like the jobs that graduates are finding at Trinity Hospital.



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