Mich. DOC program tries to match retailers looking for employees with former inmates looking for work
The Walk a Mile Mentoring for Success program aims to help employers struggling to fill staffing positions
The News Herald, Southgate, Mich.
WAYNE COUNTY, Mich. — "Show me a successful individual and I'll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don't care what you do for a living — if you do it well I'm sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor." — Denzel Washington
The Michigan Department of Corrections uses this quote from the two-time Academy Award winner to highlight the necessity of mentors and those in a position to provide guidance for the State of Michigan's Reentry Services Program.
The Walk a Mile Mentoring for Success has forged a formidable partnership with the Southern Wayne County Regional Chamber to address two issues — worker shortage and men and women needing employment after being incarcerated.
In a first for the chamber, a small business workshop was held recently to inform the business community about the partnership and program.
The workshop, held via Zoom, was the jumpstart to introducing businesses to the concept of tapping into workers who have been released from prison and are looking to get back to work, contributing to society once again.
The program comes at a time when employers locally and across the country say they are struggling to fill staffing positions.
Tony Mills, the mentor coordinator for the MDOC, and Ron Hinrichs, chamber president and CEO, explained how employers can utilize returning citizens to overcome the worker shortage and enhance business operations.
The small number in attendance from the local business community might very well be a reflection of the hurdles the program has to face.
They are challenged to convince employers to give these workers an opportunity to not only work, but also be able to secure housing and handle the stigmatization of having been incarcerated.
According to the SWCRC, the focus of the mentoring program is to assist in the worker's success by pairing him or her with peer mentors (those who have the shared experience of incarceration and reentry) and nonpeer mentors (those with whom they have a shared faith, trade, veteran status, etc.).
By helping to successfully reintegrate them back into society and stay on the right track, employers in the program can help change lives and make communities better places.
The chamber's vision is to be the "unifying body bringing people together to have a positive, lasting impact on the region."
Mills came on board about a year ago to be the administrator and architect of the program.
The former trooper with Michigan State Police referred to building the mentoring program as his surprise "calling."
He said for the first time in his adult life, he is doing something that truly has the potential to impact not just individual lives, but families and communities for the better.
"I have been doing active outreach for about the past six months promoting this program and recruiting mentors," Mills said. "I have reached out to close to 900 different organizations within the state of Michigan — everything from chambers of commerce, Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, faith-based organizations, Goodwill, Red Cross — pretty much anyone willing to listen and have a conversation. One of the things I've learned I had to do is dispel some of what are common preconceived notions about people who are coming out of prison and on parole."
Mills said society has shown to be quite hypocritical.
In one breath, he said, employers want to acknowledge that the debt to society has been paid and want the individual to reenter the workforce, have a stable place to live, become active members of community groups, and become a productive member of society.
"In the next breath, either subconsciously or out loud, many of the same people will say, 'But I don't want to give you a job or work with you, I don't want to live near you, I don't want to associate with you, I don't want to be part of any organization where you might be,'" Mills said.
He said he used to be one of the people who questioned why so much money is spent on inmate education, but now fully understands the importance of investing in their education.
Ayana King, CEO and founder of Maximum Communications in Wyandotte, expressed how informative Mills' presentation was, saying he provided a lot of good information.
"I'm so disappointed that more businesses are not on today," King said.
Hinrichs said it's an ongoing struggle to get employers to come to the table, and despite his efforts, he still wonders how they can get people to show up.
"Why would you not want to get this information," Hinrichs said.
King agreed and pointed out how this eliminates any excuses employers have pertaining to staffing.
"This is a really important program and for all of those business owners who say things like, 'Nobody wants to work,' it's not true," King said.
Hinrichs said what really ticks him off is hearing people "complain and complain" about not being able to get people to work.
"Here we have these great solutions and where are you," Hinrichs said. "If you really are solution-oriented like you say you are, then why aren't you showing up to these kinds of conversations?"
Terey DeLisle of Services to Enhance Potential also sat in on the Zoom call and said she has held these kinds of conversations with many employers.
In her experience, she said some are supportive, but there are many more who hold those preconceived notions about hiring former inmates and said those thoughts that are extremely hard to get through.
Randy Pilon, events marketing manager, and Ryan Zanardelli, membership services manager, both with the chamber, were part of the discussion, as well.
Pilon said he was excited to hear more about the program.
"I think this is a great way to solve the worker shortage crisis," Pilon said.
Zanardelli agreed with Pilon, saying this is a great opportunity to give someone a second chance.
"That's something I really believe in," Zanardelli said.
There was a target date for the launch of the program, but Mills said it is a bit of a moving target at the moment.
Everything will be on a volunteer basis, from parole agent recommendations to mentors and former inmates to take part.
Mills said mentors from all facets of life are needed.
"We can't do this on our own," Mills said about building a strong mentoring program. "We need good people from every community to step up and say, 'I'm going to invest a little bit of my time and a little bit of my experience to help someone live a better life and make my neighborhood a safer place."'
Businesses were encouraged to take a second look at the program and give people opportunities they might not have considered before.
The chamber is based in Taylor and can be reached at 734-284-6000.
For more information on the Walk a Mile program, contact Mills at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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