Employment and Support Services Helps to Build a Successful Life Back in the Community

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I wanted to share my story in hope that people will read it and start to understand how important lowering the barriers to reentry are in giving a formerly incarcerated person a chance to live a successful life. I was incarcerated for seven years and honestly was not sure I would make it out alive during my first two years of incarceration. I was in daily contact with some very violent individuals and I learned the hard way how to conduct myself and maneuver around certain personalities. It was a very tough experience where I got into fights, learned to stand up for myself and tell the truth, and finally found my own personal niche to survive in until my release.

After I finished my sentence, I moved back to the state of Washington where I had family and was hoping a network of help. I was ready to take on the world, do good and build a better life going forward. I was fortunate to find housing where I rented a room in a home and my mother helped me out with rent. However, I wanted to find work so I was not a burden to her. I wanted to be able to support myself immediately and prove myself to others. 

I had past work experience in satellite communications in the U.S. Air Force and other work experience, but soon found my employment search was not so easy. I ran into so many barriers. When I filled out job applications I was honest and filled in that I had a past felony and was formerly incarcerated. However, I was passed over and never called back again. One time, an assistant actually came out and pointed at me to another staff member saying, “That’s him.” It was so depressing!

After several months of job hunting, I realized that I had survived prison and was ready to take on the world, but the world was barring me from moving forward. I did not want to be a drain on anyone but honestly the rejections were burying me. No one would even consider hiring me and I was beyond desperate. I became so depressed that I could not even get out of bed when there was another interview possibility. I could not take one more rejection.

At this point, I was fortunate to meet someone who helped me to get hooked up with free healthcare benefits so I could talk to a doctor. Since I did not want to even leave my room, I knew I needed help. My new healthcare benefits were a lifesaver as I went to see a doctor who connected me with a counselor for mental health care. The counseling sessions started to help me right away and gave me the ability to see a little light at the end of the tunnel.

One day, one of my roommate’s in my house mentioned Terra Staffing to me. My roommate explained that Terra recruiters really work with individuals looking for work, despite your background. I was feeling a bit better and managed to get over to Terra’s office. They interviewed me and immediately hired me on as a temp loading trucks. I was so grateful, but I really needed full-time work. The recruiter asked if I could be at Pioneer Distribution Center (PDC) that week for full-time work and I said, “Yes!” I would be  working as an employee of Terra Staffing for Pioneer. PDC stores, tracks and ships aerospace parts from 10 different aerospace parts suppliers (including Pioneer Industries) for Boeing.

At PDC, I started working in parts control. It is very detailed work and I am a bit of a perfectionist so I did well on the floor. Both Vicki Cleveland, director of PDC and Kathy Gasca, distribution manager, coached me to help me succeed in my job. They have also guided me in refining my communications because I tend to be pretty blunt and that isn’t always the best way to communicate with other employees. 

I was eventually moved into the receiving of supplies area where I caught a mistake and it came to Vicki’s attention. She called me in her office on break and shared how grateful she was for my attention to detail. She then asked me, “How would you like to work as an employee for Pioneer now?” She hired me on from Terra Staffing into the raw materials department where you have to calculate how much of a supply to send to other suppliers and/or Boeing. Next, I was moved to work again in the shipping and receiving area but focus on the raw materials that are delivered to the center. I work closely with Boeing on resolving issues and they have been very appreciative and respectful of my suggestions and corrections so I feel pretty good about my position and myself. 

It took about a year and a half to realize that both Vicki Cleveland and Kathy Gasca always have my best interests at heart. They are at work to help me succeed personally and in my job. Kathy Gasca is always on the floor and has been a wonderful coach and advisor to me. She has taken the time to help me on the job and listen to me when I get frustrated with myself and other employees. My perfectionism can really get me riled up and Kathy guides me on how to focus on what is important. She calms me down and helps me to look at myself and the reasons for my frustration. We have worked out many of my issues together. 

In my personal life, I also wanted to get engaged in the community and in a church. I was being turned away from churches when I shared that I had a felony with various pastors. That was really discouraging. Vicki Cleveland talks to all her employees at PDC and I shared my problem with her one day. She suggested a church to me where she knew the pastor. He ended up welcoming me with open-arms and I was so grateful!

I also needed new housing. I had a roommate who was harassing me for being formerly incarcerated and it was time I found my own apartment. The problem was that my housing applications were being rejected due to my conviction history. When I again shared my new problem with Vicki Cleveland she informed me that my new pastor also had a housing facility where he rented apartments. He had an available unit and it all came together – I finally got my own apartment.

In my new apartment, I also started to take care of other maintenance needs for the building. I helped out with anything that the building and my neighbors needed. My pastor who owns the building heard about all my work over the years and offered me a discount on my rent if I agreed to be the apartment manager and continued to take care of maintenance needs and any safety concerns. I grabbed at that offer! My building is in an area where we get some transient and pretty rough people walking around and causing problems near the building. I can’t even tell you how good it made me feel when a neighbor across the street, not even in my building, had an individual disturbing her and her young daughter, and she came to me for help. She could have reached out to anyone but she trusted me for help. That really made me feel proud.

Pioneer has been a lifeline of support to me. I still have this need to prove that I am worthy and that I have changed for the better, but Pioneer gives me that opportunity and is there to provide me with the support services I need. I suggest to other formerly incarcerated people to not be afraid to ask for help and try to build a support system. You CAN change and live a good life if you work at it and ask for help along the way.

Austin is pictured with Vicki Cleveland, director of the Pioneer Distribution Center

Thursday, November 4, 2021