By Craig Ramey
Jeremiah Simmons felt freedom for the first time in a decade when he walked out of prison this August. At 26 years old, he reentered society as a convicted felon, homeless and struggling to find a job. Rather than fall deeper into despair or give up, Simmons found a way to stay positive and use his past as motivation for a better future.
“When I came home, things got crazy,” said Simmons. “I wanted to give up but I figured, if I can do those 10 years in prison, I can come out in society and keep pushing the same way. Those 10 years helped me mentally become the man I am today. ”
Now, Simmons can be found working at Baker’s Kitchen in downtown New Bern. Darting through the dining room to clear tables and then back into the kitchen where he sprays plates with steaming hot water that nearly envelopes him into a cloud of steam, Simmons’ contagious smile and positivity still shine through. He remains positive, in part, because other people were willing to take a chance on his future.
Simmons’ positive attitude built a solid foundation for success and Bengel Hospitality, owners of Baker’s Kitchen actually provided him with a job, but the framework that would lead him toward employment came from the partnership between the Craven-Pamlico Reeentry Council and Craven Community College’s (Craven CCs) Job Readiness Boot Camp. Designed to help people released from prison transition back into their communities and to help communities prevent repeat offenders, the Craven-Pamlico Reentry Council works with Craven CC’s Job Readiness Boot Camp to give people the skills needed to plan for successful job interviews and improve chances for employment.
“If you are serious and willing to put the work in, we will help you,” said Greg Singleton, director of community workforce readiness at Craven CC and project manager for the Craven-Pamlico Reentry Council. “This program is about empowering people and motivating them to not give up on themselves. We want them to stay hungry and stay humble. We have to empower them by showing them what they do well and talk about the positive.”
Just as it was for Simmons, the first step in this process began with the reentry council.
“I found out about the reentry council and Mr. Singleton before I got out,” said Simmons. “The week I got out I went to Craven Community College and asked for Mr. Singleton. Ever since then it’s been history.”
Singleton then connected Simmons to the Job Readiness Boot Camp, which teaches individuals how to highlight positive attributes, interview for jobs, learn from failures and manage the difficulties they may face as convicted felons in the job market.
“Getting through that program was a good feeling,” said Simmons. “It helped me be ready for job interviews, how to cope with society again and to be able to express myself to people instead of being so closed in. It really opened the door.”
Once an individual completes boot camp, he or she must still face the obstacle of finding an employer who is willing to take a chance on someone with a criminal record. Fortunately for Simmons, Bengel Hospitality is a local company that is willing to take that chance.
“Just because someone has made a mistake in life, it doesn’t mean they are a bad person or no longer able to contribute to society,” said Buddy Bengel, managing partner for Bengel Hospitality. “You need to give them an opportunity to show they have moved beyond anything they may have done in the past.”
Offering a second chance to ex-offenders also makes financial sense to business owners like Bengel.
“This creates a whole other workforce,” said Bengel. “I would encourage every business in New Bern to look at this as an opportunity to expand the workforce, get people working and contribute to society. If a person is willing to go through the program and complete it, then we as business owners should look at giving them an opportunity.”
The statewide initiative of reentry councils also sees the financial and business benefit of investing in those who are recently released from prison. Last week the Department of Public Safety announced a grant of $225,000 to the Eastern Carolina Council of Governments in Pamlico/Craven counties, which will help support the Craven-Pamlico Reentry Council.
“I’m a firm believer that education is what’s going to win this battle at the end,” said Singleton. “These stories are so therapeutic to someone who has faced this type of failure. To know someone else can come out of it, it gives them hope.”