Erasing the stigma - New job center run by ex-offenders.

Money is like oxygen, and many recovering drug addicts and ex-offenders find it hard to breathe because prospective employers often refuse to hire them.

There’s long been a stigma surrounding recovering addicts and ex-offenders: they’re seen as bad people and untrustworthy, which makes them a very high-risk hire.

That, however, is a myth, according to Saad Soliman, who cofounded Proficient Effectively Engaging Reentry Services (or PEERS) Mentoring Center with Kelli DiSabatino.

PMC offers reentry services to help ex-offenders and recovering addicts gain employment. Based in Wilmington, the brand-new PMC had its grand opening Sept. 21. The nonprofit is privately funded and most of its seven staffers have been incarcerated in the past.

While Soliman admitted “it’s incredibly difficult” to find employment as an ex-offender, he said it doesn’t have to be this way.

“What I’ve found is that business owners are incredibly capable and caring,” Soliman said. “You can enhance public safety by putting these men and women to work, because if we leave them out of bounds, they’re bound to rely on the same mistakes that they’ve made in the past.

“By advocating that, and really humanizing the experience, business owners are very willing to say, ‘I’ll give them a chance.’”

Soliman knows this because he spent the last four years working as a reentry and training specialist for federal probation, helping ex-cons land jobs. The probation program had a success rate of about 90 percent, he said.

Soliman said it’s common for ex-offenders and recovering addicts to have a stronger work ethic than those who don’t have a criminal background.

“Many of these men and women have never really had a real shot at life,” Soliman said. An ex-felon himself, Soliman served 15 years after being involved in a bank robbery that went awry, resulting in the death of his friend.

‘They’re great employees’

Joe Harrington, owner of the home remodeling company JH Contracting in Middletown, said he’s hired plenty of laborers with a checkered past.

“I’ve got a couple guys who work for me who’ve had felonies, and they’re great employees,” said Harrington, one of the construction contractors working with PMC. “These are guys in their 30s now. They’re not the same person they were when they were 17, 18, 19 or in their early 20s.

“You can’t really judge a guy for a mistake they made at a younger age.”

Sex assault led to heroin habit

PMC program coordinator John Dooling, 39, became a criminal after suffering a traumatic experience as a teen.

“I was 15 and I got raped by my mom’s boyfriend,” said Dooling, adding his manhood was taken in order to teach him a lesson in humility, because he disrespected his attacker before the incident. 

Dooling said he eventually began using drugs to numb his pain. Heroin and cocaine became his coping mechanism. But his habit was expensive, leading him to rob banks, he said.

His heroin addiction killed him in 2012, leaving him dead for seven minutes, until an EMT revived him. 

Dooling said PMC staffers, who’ve been charged with crimes ranging from drug use to bank robbery, are so diverse that the team is equipped to help virtually any kind of client land a job, and to help them deal with trauma they may be experiencing.

“I think this is going to work because people really care, and everyone has a selfless attitude,” Dooling said. “I went through so much and I know what to look for. I understand red flags. A lot of people in this field are book smart, but don’t really have that lived-with-it experience.”

‘Deal with the struggle’

PMC participant Leonard Gibbs, 33, has the determination to stay on the right track.

His former boss, Roger Coberly of Felton, owner of East Coast Remodel Designs, was killed after becoming the victim in a hit-and-run incident in early September.

Now Gibbs is between jobs. And since he’s only in phase one of the PMC program, he won’t get paid until he’s completed the first six weeks.

Persistent enough to stay in the program, Gibbs recently made a gutsy decision.

“I just sold my car to pay my rent,” he said. “It’s my drive to stay focused on what matters. And right now it’s this program.”

Fellow member Aaron Morris, 30, said the people who want to succeed in the program will find a way to make it through phase one.

“At the end of the day, the same way you deal with the struggle [inside prison or rehab], you can deal with this struggle,” he said.

Morris has landed three carpentry jobs since returning home from prison in August 2016, after serving 10 years for murder and drug conspiracy.

He’s gotten all three jobs because of Soliman, Morris said, who had been mentoring him long before the PEERS program.

Though Morris got a job the same month he was released in 2016, he said the hunt was rough, since he knows some potential employers saw him as a “monster.”

“All of [the jobs I applied for] told me - ‘you got this record, and my employees wouldn’t be comfortable,’” Morris said. “It’s [messed] up, because I’m no different than the next person. I made mistakes, but it doesn’t mean I’m somebody who should be cut off from the world.”

Morris first worked a brief stint at Interfaith Community Housing of Delaware in Wilmington. Then he slid back into selling drugs.

“I worked all week for a few hundred dollars, and it wasn’t cutting it,” said Morris, who said he once he banked $30,000 in a day.

Morris explained drug dealers are as addicted to money as their customers are to drugs.

“It’s the same high,” he said. “When that person comes around looking for a bag [of drugs], as soon as you get their money, it’s adrenaline. At the end of the day, when you’re at home counting the money, it’s a rush.”

Morris quit his second job in December because he said layoffs were on the horizon and he wanted to avoid that. From there, he went back to hustling drugs, because he felt this was his only option.

Every time Morris went back to the streets, Soliman was there to help pick up the pieces and find him another job, he said.

Morris is currently on his third carpentry job and he’s thankful to Soliman, who’s remained in his corner.

“I had to come to grips with myself. If I keep doing this, it’s going to be the same outcome,” Morris said. “You’re not going to come home from jail and get the job you want. But you have to start somewhere.”

Relapsing isn’t a given

Soliman said it’s not true that ex-offenders or recovering addicts pose a bigger risk of being bad employees.

“That risk is latent,” he said. “It exists in every one of us - whether we be felon, not a felon, addicted or not addicted.”

Instead, Soliman said, the key is having a support system in place. He and his staff will keep tabs for up to a year on their members who’ve graduated into the workforce.

“The idea that recidivism or relapsing is an absolute guarantee is false,” Soliman said. “We need to begin dispelling that myth, because people internalize it and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Need to feel ‘human again’

Penni Enama, 52, said she won’t let the label "felon" define her for the rest of her life.

Enama, from Lewes, said she never had a speeding ticket in her life, yet found herself serving 14 months in prison for wire fraud and tax evasion. She embezzled over $430,000 from a Delaware law firm.

She came home this year and is in phase one of the PMC program. While incarcerated, Enama found herself parenting inmates young enough to be her daughter.

“I saw the need to help the women who were incarcerated there by teaching them basic skills,” she said. “I taught classes on how to write a résumé. I taught interview skills.”

Her goal at PMC is to land a job as a peer counselor, so she can help others navigate the path she walked.

Enama explained how demoralizing it was in prison.

She was incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn., which has a pet therapy program.

“Last summer there were 100-plus [degree] days, multiple days in a row,” she said. “They removed the dogs, because it was too hot. But the humans stayed. If the dogs got sick, they got out immediately.

“But if one of the women got sick, [then so be it],” Enama explained. A lady broke her hand and didn’t get the surgery she needed until a year later.”

Landing a job is crucial for ex-offenders and people in recovery, because it’s part of their healing process.

“The sense of humanity is stripped away from you when you’re in a jail, whether you’re a woman or man,” Enama said. “These men and women [in the PMC program] need a sense of feeling human again.”

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