Working at the Urbean Cafe is more than a job for the staff at the eatery in Akron’s downtown bus terminal.
It’s a second chance for several men and women to earn a living after serving time in jail or prison.
“It’s like double jeopardy, collateral consequences; we’ve gone away and served our time, and then when we come back we’re still paying because people won’t give us jobs,” said Joy Rios, the cafe’s manager. “Some of us do change.”
The cafe, which employs up to eight former offenders, is operated by the workforce development arm of Broken Chains, a local nonprofit jail ministry.
Rios, 55, who grew up in Mahoning County, served nearly six years in the penitentiary for aggravated robbery. She said she didn’t use a gun when she tried to rob a place, but insinuated that she did, which carries the same penalty as if she had the gun.
“I was addicted to drugs for a very long time, since I was 16, then I had 69 months clean. I was diagnosed with cancer and my son had the worst sickle-cell crisis he ever had,” she said. “I felt like life was kicking me up one side of the head and down the other before my feet hit the floor in the morning, and I guess I just wanted some relief and I relapsed,” she said. “When I relapsed, I went insane and I tried to rob a place. I was clean for 69 months and I went away for 69 months. ”
She said the coincidence is uncanny.
“It was mostly crack that I used, but the war is over and it was a war. But I made it out,” she said. “I’m grateful that I landed in Akron — to this program — rather than being shipped back to Mahoning County when I got out. There’s nothing there for me.”
The program allows the workers to take time off for parole or probation officer visits, which could be an obstacle on another full-time job.
“Working in the cafe is our way of stabilizing one’s life. We do not employ sex offenders or someone with a super violent history,” said Dennis Shawhan, who heads the jail ministry. “We teach the basics of coming to work and being on time, handling money transactions, customer relations, becoming part of a team and performing work the best of their ability. We also work with [former inmates] to do things the right way and not try to skirt the system.”
Shawhan said about 16,000 people come through the jail on a yearly basis and 12,000 are repeat offenders.
Working at the cafe is considered a steppingstone to a full-time position at a restaurant.
Rios has earned the ministry’s trust. As the manager, she keeps the place stocked, does the inventory and makes the bank deposits.
She said gratitude keeps her going, and she likes the challenge of the job.
“It’s more than a job to me, it’s home. This is my family,” she said.
Shawhan said the program is a work in progress.
“We are proud of what our employees are accomplishing. They aren’t all they can be, but they sure aren’t what they used to be.”
Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or email@example.com.