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Idle Hands into Able Bodies
Blue Jacket helps ex-offenders earn second chances
By Eddie Torres
Fort Wayne Reader
Tomatoes. Okra. Bell peppers. Jalapenos. Onions. Those are just a few of the things sprouting in a new urban garden on South Calhoun Street. But in addition to vegetables and flowers, hope and opportunity are growing, too.
"Gardens are a wonderful expression of rebirth and renewal," says Anthony Hudson. "I can't think of a more fitting way to share our mission with the community."
Hudson is executive director of Blue Jacket, Inc., a social and economic development non-profit whose mission is to provide tools and opportunities for adults with felony records to be productive members of society. It's not a mission for the faint-hearted. Blue Jacket's clients range from first-time felons to repeat offenders to drug offenders to violent offenders including rapists and murders. Any felony conviction makes you eligible to receive help from Blue Jacket. But you have to earn it.
"We help people who committed a serious crime but paid their debt to society earn a second chance through hard work and effort. The key word is ‘earn’," Hudson says. "At Blue Jacket, we expect the people we assist to prove themselves by their actions."
In an average year, the Indiana Department of Corrections returns 1,200 prison inmates back to Allen County. More than 1 out of 3 of those men and women end up right back in prison in less than a year. That rate of re-incarceration, called recidivism, is an ongoing challenge faced by communities across the nation. How do you take someone who just got out of prison, re-integrate them into society and keep them on the straight and narrow? Blue Jacket says employment is a major key.
Since its inception, Blue Jacket has graduated thousands of men and women from its Career Academy, a month-long job search and career development course designed specifically for adults with felony convictions. Think of it as a job training boot camp complete with a strict dress code (business professional), hands-on learning, homework, computer work, mock interviews, an immersive group project and much more. Like boot camp, not everyone survives the rigors of training. Incomplete assignments, showing up looking like you just fell out of bed, being late or just having a bad attitude mean immediate expulsion from the academy. The idea is to help students not just learn but also live the expectations of real-world working environments.
Students are also required to make a financial investment in their future. Every student must pay a $30 tuition fee. That might not seem like a lot of money but you have to remember that many of these students are just out of jail or prison. Even so, every student is expected to have some skin in the game. But because that $30 only covers a fraction of the total cost of the four-week course, the rest of the tuition is often paid by a referring agency or sponsor. Students who don't have a way to cover the rest of the cost can try for a scholarship (funded by Blue Jacket donors).
Students who make it through the 60-hour training curriculum to become graduates of the Career Academy are then eligible for job placement through Blue Jacket's in-house temporary staffing agency, Opportunity Staffing. Although no student is ever promised a job, the majority of graduates are successful in landing employment.
Even after completing the Career Academy, many grads keep in close contact with Blue Jacket as volunteers. From painting to mopping floors to pulling weeds in the garden, graduates view their labor as a way to give back as well as a way to stay in touch with a positive influence their lives.
"I see people gaining from this organization every day. It's definitely an inspiration to me," says Cameron Brooks, a recent Career Academy graduate. While continuing his job search, Brooks is a frequent volunteer at Blue Jacket, often tending to the garden.
Another Career Academy grad, Jennifer Crickmore, is a Blue Jacket staffer in charge of alumni relations. She's also spearheading the urban garden, which not only includes planting and cultivating but selling produce inside the adjacent gazebo most afternoons.
"I tried to plant vegetables that are used by the different cultures in the 46807 area, namely Roma tomatoes, jalapenos, habanera peppers, okra, collard greens and onions," she says. "This garden is for the community and the alumni of Blue Jacket Inc. We're blessed to have the support of the community."
As she and other alums like Cameron Brooks work side by side, shoulder to shoulder, pulling weeds, watering and harvesting vegetables, Crickmore says the garden is a great avenue for mentoring Blue Jacket graduates and keeping them active in volunteering and community service.
"These experiences and opportunities are invaluable for people who are working hard to earn a second chance," Crickmore adds. "Keeping people engaged and encouraged goes a long way toward helping them stay on the right path. And the benefit to the community is enormous."
Anthony Hudson sees Blue Jacket's new home at 2826 South Calhoun Street as another potential community asset. The 19,000 square foot building and campus (about four times the size of Blue Jacket's old headquarters on South Clinton Street) includes multiple classrooms and computer labs, a warehouse for business incubation, the urban garden and other new features. Not only do these amenities offer ample opportunity for the organization to enhance its core mission, Hudson says the door is wide open for other community organizations to use the space, too.
"This campus offers lots of opportunities for collaborations and community partnerships," says Hudson. "We have state-of-the-art classrooms and meeting spaces that we invite the community to take advantage of. We really see our new home as a community resource."
In turn, the community has been good to Blue Jacket. One of the most entrepreneurial non-profits in the region, the organization currently operates without the benefit of state or federal funding. Operations are financed primarily through Career Academy tuitions as well as revenue from Opportunity Staffing, Blue Jacket's in-house temporary staffing agency. Grants and fundraising events provide additional sources of funding. However, community support through donations is also a critical factor in Blue Jacket's survival. The organization's new headquarters, the former home of Anthony Wayne Services, was made possible by the generosity of the Anthony Wayne Services Foundation and Mary Cross Tippmann Foundation. Donations also make it possible for students who don't have the means to pay for the Career Academy to attend on scholarships. Hudson is grateful for the community support and says the payoffs benefit us all.
"It costs nearly $29,000 per year to keep someone in prison. For less than 3% of that cost, our Career Academy provides the training and guidance that can help a person become and remain a positive force in our society," Hudson says.
Of course none of this would mean anything without employers who are willing to offer a second chance to an ex-offender. Hudson calls it "a secret philanthropy of lending a hand to people who are down and out."
"Without job opportunities, these are people who would depend on public assistance or even commit new crimes," Hudson explains. "The open minded employers who work with our graduates are the real story. They never seek public acclaim for the thousands of dollars they save Allen County taxpayers by hiring people with criminal backgrounds who have earned a second chance."
For more information about Blue Jacket's Career Academy, call (260) 744-1900 or go to bluejacketinc.org to visit the organization's web site.