SILER CITY — Back in 1996, then-29-year-old Greg Singleton was ready to start his life over. With passion, enthusiasm and a new positive outlook, he took a job at a dry cleaning business.
He was happy and got along with fellow coworkers.
“They loved me,” he said.
After three days, they promoted him from separating dirty clothes to working the front register and drive-through — and gave Singleton a 40-cent raise. They even made him a birthday cake when he turned 30.
His co-workers got curious about why someone with so much enthusiasm was working there. They asked him, and he told the truth: He’d just been released from prison as a first-time, non-violent offender, and he was doing what he could to move his life forward.
A few days later, Singleton was fired after his boss found out he’d been convicted of a crime.
“And I felt like that was going to be the norm of my life … ,” he said. “That really hurt.”
Now, as dean of workforce & continuing education programs at Central Carolina Community College, Singleton’s personal experience is just one example of the barriers formerly-incarcerated individuals face when trying to reenter society, hurdles which can trap them in vicious cycles of recidivism (repeat offenses).
But thanks to his passion to reduce recidivism and his own experience, Singleton has spearheaded CCCC’s Building Bridges Program, a free week-long program for underemployed, unemployed and those with a criminal record — individuals to gain career readiness skills. CCCC’s program offers Job Readiness Boot Camp soft skills, forklift training and OSHA-10 certification, making its graduates work-ready in a very short time.
“This program provides options — not a handout, but a hand up,” Singleton said. “And there is a difference.”
The five-day program launched in January didn’t initially include the OSHA-10 certification, which is now included. The recently-added OSHA element teaches entry-level workers safety through recognition and prevention of workplace hazards and their rights over a 10-hour certification process, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor.
The program has graduated 63 individuals with a high rate of success — more than 65% of program participants have gotten jobs immediately or job interviews during mock interviews with employers like Wolfspeed, Vinfast, 3M and the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, Singleton said.
Its curriculum starts with Job Readiness Boot Camp soft skills training since over 96% of the students have never taken a community college course and may have fear of failure and anxiety on the first day, Singleton said.
The forklift certification training takes place on the second and third day, and they then go back to soft skills training, and end with OSHA-10 training and mock interviews with employers, he said.
Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina works in partnership with the Building Bridges Program to provide a $200 weekly allowance and a food box, Emily Kraft, director of community outreach & support services at Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, said.
“The boxes contain canned chicken, pasta, pasta sauce, peas, mixed veggies, canned fruit (in juice), applesauce, pinto beans, black beans, instant oatmeal and shelf-stable milk,” she said.
In addition, all of the forklift equipment was donated: a sit-down forklift was recently donated by the former owners of the Chatham News & Record and a pallet jack and other equipment by Carolina Handling Inc., Singleton said.
BARRIERS TO REENTRY
Released convicts face stigma and an extra set of barriers upon their release as they try to reintegrate society, Singleton said.
The National Institutes of Health conducted a study — “The Effect of Stigma on Criminal Offenders’ Functioning: A Longtitudinal Mediational Model” — and its “results showed that perceived stigma predicted worse community adjustment through anticipated stigma, and this varied by race,” the study said.
Formerly incarcerated individuals face barriers in employment, housing and education, according to Michigan Justice Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that advocates for justice involved individuals.
That’s why supporters of the Building Bridges Program believe in it.
In order to combat those barriers in employment and education (and indirectly, housing), the program provides a quick and free alternative to help those whose criminal debts have been paid get on their feet quicker than a trade school, associate or bachelor’s degree can.
“If we get people to stop committing crimes and going back to jail, they become taxpayers.” Malinda Marsh, human resources development coordinator at CCCC, said. “And that is the lesson to the community. Those tax dollars count.”
Marsh, who visits the students each class, said the program shows individuals that survival is possible without committing crimes — plus it creates hope, provides for a safer community, helps the children in the community and helps businesses get employees and decreases return on investments.
“So there’s all kinds of benefits,” she said. “And then we don't have children with parents that are incarcerated or that are on the system, so there is no repeat generational thing. We want to break that cycle: We want to show our kids that you don't have to live like this. There's a better life for you in Chatham County.”
IMPACT ON ITS STUDENTS AND BEYOND
Anthony Trapp, who graduated from the program two weeks ago, said it gave him confidence, in addition to new skills.
In addition to learning to operate a fork lift and taking OSHA-10 training, Trapp also learned soft skills like creating and presenting a résumé and cover letter, as well as selling oneself during an interview.
“I feel more empowered, and I feel stronger, and I feel more relaxed,” he said.
Trapp’s classroom environment was good and calm, he said, and everyone was focused, excited to learn and engaged by asking questions. He’s even set up several job interviews.
“I feel like now I can always go forward and be encouraged about what I'm doing,” he said. “And when I'm talking about how to present myself and how to sell myself, and talking to employees feeling confident — I feel like this training has helped me a lot”
Trapp said there are a lot of people who have never been encouraged by anyone or had anyone in the community step up for them, which is why this program is particularly helpful.
The next week-long program cohort starts July 17; others are set to begin Aug. 14 and Sept. 18. The program accepts participants until the first day, but encourages individuals to register early. The public is invited to save the date and watch students maneuver the forklifts from 10 to 11 a.m. on July 19 at CCCC.
In addition, the Community Remembrance Coalition-Chatham (CRC-C) is starting to work with CCCC and Singleton to help recently released individuals return to their life outside prison to reduce recidivism and spread community awareness, W. Robert Pearson, member of CRC-C, said.
“If someone can walk out the door feeling like they are worth something,” Kraft said. “To me, there's no greater gift you can give somebody.”
To register, contact Marsh at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 919-545-8058.