Workshops help ex-convicts become employable

Workshops help ex-convicts become employable

December 11, 2010 By Rich Bockmann, SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Patrick Courtney sought help at the Rescue Mission of Trenton, he had — among other difficulties — some gaps in his employment history, due most notably to some time spent in prison.

But through a Rescue Mission program Courtney now has a job and is rebuilding his qualifications as an employable worker.

On a recent weekday Courtney was in a workshop at the Rescue Mission filling tubes of grease intended for use by Hutchinson Industries, a city-based manufacturer of military-vehicle parts and equipment.

Scores of others like Courtney arrive at the Rescue Mission each year. They are homeless, hungry, and often addicted to drugs and alcohol. The Rescue Mission says it is working harder not merely to address those issues, but also to help these men and women find their way into regular employment as a big step toward self-sufficiency.

"In addition to job training, a big part of it is presenting them favorably to potential employers," says Rescue Mission CEO Mary Gay Abbott-Young.

"We take in people who, by definition, have problems," she said. On the job at the Rescue Mission, they can systematically get control of their lives.

Part of the rehabilitation process for anyone in the Rescue Mission's residential program includes work therapy — work at the Rescue Mission that develops skills and builds a sense of self-worth. Jobs are structured hierarchically, and residents can progress from doing laundry and custodial tasks to working at the clothing store.

"I like to think of it as starting in the mail room and working your way to the corner office," said Douglas Liebau, the mission's director of entrepreneurial and training.

The Rescue Mission also offers an educational component called TEACH — Trenton Education and Advancement Center for the Homeless. It combines traditional educational services — such as math and literacy preparations for an equivalency diploma — with job-search counseling that addresses the individual's particular needs.

"The bottom line has been to empower these men and get them going with a marketable resume," says Marlene Devlin, a program director with Union Industrial Home Family Partners. She encourages people to take their negative experiences and present them in a positive way, because "employers often times are judging whether you're a negative or a positive person."

The Rescue Mission strives to introduce residents to employers who have often disregarded this segment of the labor force. Hutchinson Industries has partnered with the mission for a few years already, but relatively new to the list is TerraCycle, a rapidly growing Trenton company that specializes in fertilizer and recycled products.

Part of bringing workers and companies together involves coaching people to put a shine on whatever experience they have.

Devlin encourages people to highlight even prison work, such food preparation or maintenance experience.

"You can show that you've gained valuable experience even if it was while you were incarcerated," she says.

Zane Gaines says the training he got from Devlin has been invaluable. She instructed him to ask about more than just salary and benefits to demonstrate his interest in working for a potential employer.

"When it came time for my interview, I was able to ask him questions — when and how do you evaluate your employees? He was stunned," says Gaines.

In the past few years, Abbott-Young has been "actively pursuing companies" to partner with the Rescue Mission and to view her clientele as a qualified and available source of labor. "Companies have certain jobs that need to be done, and our residents are capable of doing them," she said.

Pascal Seradarian, president of Hutchinson Industries and a board member of the mission, can recall Abbott-Young telling him: "I don't want your donations. I want your jobs."

And so Seradarian, whose office is right across the street from the Rescue Mission, agreed to install machinery in the mission's facilities and provide training to its residents who now perform industrial work that Hutchinson had previously outsourced.

"It's a clever way to get the Rescue Mission to train and integrate these people," said Seradarian.

Through the partnership with Hutchinson and two other companies, TerraCycle and Magnum Computer Recycling, the Rescue Mission has been able to provide part-time, minimum wage jobs for nine former residents.

Seradarian says that other companies can follow Hutchinson's lead. "It only takes five minutes to look at how they're outsourcing now and consider the Rescue Mission. The things they're outsourcing are small, but it's huge to the Rescue Mission."

Abbott-Young says she'd like to expand the current program, and offer space in one of the mission's buildings and the labor to go with it to local businesses. The supply of labor at the mission, she says, is ample.

Funds from this year's Holiday Appeal will be used to support the Rescue Mission of Trenton's broad range of programs for the homeless, the hungry, the transient and the addicted.

To make a donation in support of the Rescue Mission of Trenton, please make your check payable to The Times Holiday Appeal and mail it to Times Charities Inc., P.O. Box 416045, Boston, MA 02241-6045.

All gifts will be acknowledged in The Times. Anonymity will be granted if requested.

For more information about the Rescue Mission of Trenton, call (609) 695-1436 ext. 102 or go to

Click for Donation Form

98 Carroll Street, P.O. Box 790 * Trenton, NJ 08605-0790