It doesn’t take long for a job hunter to reach the application question that is a deal breaker for many Ohioans.
“Have you been convicted of a felony?”
With so many job hunters with clean records, answering “Yes” to that question usually brings an automatic rejection.
Fred Lester, Angela McDonald and Crystal Starks encountered that roadblock and found ways to build their work record, demonstrate their reliability and improve their chances of getting a decent job.
It started with taking jobs nobody wanted — cutting grass, painting bathrooms, picking up trash and pulling weeds.
“Would you rather cut some grass or would you rather steal something? It’s that simple,” Starks said.
Starks, Lester and McDonald will be among 10 former felons to tell their success stories at a Broken Chains Ministry event at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Guy’s Party Center, 500 E. Waterloo Road, Akron. Call 330-643-8663 for free tickets. The speakers will tell of landing jobs in roofing, house cleaning, retail, tool and die, and manufacturing.
Starks left a life of crime and drugs to become a college graduate and full-time worker. She says the chances are improving for convicted felons returning to society.
“It’s a good time for the ex-offender in Ohio, because when I was going in and out of jail, there weren’t programs in place like there are now,” she said. “It wasn’t the network like there is going on now.”
That includes the Summit County Reentry Coalition where Starks is an employee, advising job hunters with records on how to find jobs. The coalition holds a seminar on the fourth Friday of every month at the Job Center, 1040 Tallmadge Ave., Akron.
The coalition offers a document on its website called Coming Home: A Road Map for Successful Reentry. The first step: “Change what is inside your head — reinvent and improve.” The document will be available with this story on Ohio.com. The website is at www.summitcountyreentrynetwork.org.
Lester, who is associate pastor at Akron Bible Church, combines the spiritual side with accepting menial jobs.
“Get in wherever you can fit in,” he said. “If people could realize that little is much, especially when God said it, and just keep believing and having faith, something will come up.”
It did for him. He describes his criminal record as “Kinda long. We could do a little mini-book.”
His life of crime lasted 32 years and ended in 1995 when he found Christ while in the Summit County Jail.
Now he’s a pastor doing most of his work in jails and prisons.
Raised as a Catholic, McDonald was touched by religion from the start, but it didn’t prevent her from running away from her family at 16 and starting into drugs. She estimates she spent more than six years in prison.
“I knew God, I just didn’t have a relationship with him,” she said.
She also began her spiritual journey in prison but was not immediately successful.
“I got out and I fell flat on my face,” she said. “The difference was remorse and guilt.”
Facing up to her problems included overcoming pride.
“I’m kinda thick-skulled,” McDonald explained.
She started back to work nine months ago at the Broken Chains Ministry’s Urbean Cafe in Metro RTA’s Pfaff Transit Center in downtown Akron.
Starks says the fate of former felons is improving. Employers are eligible for grants if they hire people with records and the state eliminated some collateral sanctions that prevent people with records from getting certain jobs, including optical dispensers, salvage yard dealers, hearing-aid dealers and fitters, guards and those in cosmetology and the construction industry.
Ohio also created the “certificate of qualifications for employment” that felons can use to get jobs. Progress is slow. Since February, only eight people in Summit County have applied for a CQE and only three have been granted.
Joann Sahl, assistant clinical professor in the University of Akron’s Law Department, said the CQE application is 16 pages long and can take up to 90 minutes to complete, even with a UA law student volunteer helping. The law school volunteers will offer help at 1 p.m. Oct. 19 at St. Paul Baptist Church, 1530 Virginia Ave., Akron.
The CQE application includes a $250 fee. It also comes under scrutiny from the Summit County Common Pleas Court and victims are given a chance to comment. Go to http://www.uakron.edu/law/clinical/cqe-clinic.dot for more details.
Advocates resist the term “former felons,” preferring “returning citizen” while also advising members of that group to be honest about their past when asked.
Lester wants recognition that people can change after prison.
“I was but I ain’t no more,” he said about his felonies. “If a person does his time regardless of what the stigma is or what the records say, that’s paid in full. You were that when he went in but when he came out it’s paid in full.”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or email@example.com. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.