Kevin Gay is president and founder of a groundbreaking organization that puts nonviolent ex-offenders back into the workforce. His nonprofit mission, Operation New Hope, started with a question:
“When are guys like you going to get it?”
The question came from his Episcopal priest, Davette Turk, who wanted him to see that serving others didn’t require him to go on overseas mission trips.
“I was taken aback,” Gay says. “She said, ‘I want you to get in your fancy-ass little car and drive to North Jacksonville for a week and come back and tell me what you see.’”
Gay did just that, 16 years ago, and he’s never looked back. What started as an urban housing renewal project morphed into a jobs-placement program for prison ex-offenders. Animated and energetic at 57, Gay is first to admit his own naivety about what he was doing.
“I didn’t know anything about absolute abject poverty,” he says.
When Operation New Hope began building homes in Jacksonville’s Springfield area, Gay hired contractors from other neighborhoods. When items like hammers and ladders started disappearing from the construction sites, he bought a storage trailer for tools and supplies.
“They took the whole cotton-pickin’ thing,” he said.
Then, the Rev. Garland Scott from City Center Ministries on Eighth Street asked him another question: “Are you ready to listen?”
Scott told him, “If you’ll start hiring people from right here, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
“When we hired the [first] two kids, no one took a nail after that,” Gay says. “What we realized was that we really needed to be restoring people.”
Since Operation New Hope’s headquarters was only a 10-minute walk from the jail, they started putting newly released inmates to work, too. When ONH ran out of work for them, Gay would call around to see whether other contractors needed workers. Something surprising happened, though now it’s a no-brainer for Gay: The people whom Gay put to work were not cycling back into the criminal justice system.
“It’s the power of a job,” he says.
That power drew attention from high places. In 2003 Gay, a Democrat, was summoned along with Scott to the White House to meet with President George W. Bush, who asked him and Scott to pilot a re-entry program for offenders who had completed their prison sentences.
“We were building houses,” Gay says. “I wasn’t in the re-entry world.”
But he did as President Bush asked. With funding from The Ford Foundation, The Casey Foundation, and Bush’s Second Chance Act, Gay built the template for prisoner re-entry that’s now being used in six other cities.
He’s proud of the “really neat affirmations” his team has received from “30,000 feet.” Bush was only the first president to notice the work being done at Operation New Hope. Former President Bill Clinton mentioned Operation New Hope in his book, “Giving,” as did President Barack Obama in a speech.
Gay is glad to see bipartisan support for re-entry work, and more recently, for criminal justice reform. “We in America have been so hungry for this,” he says.
He rattles off incarceration statistics like church litany: We have less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but we imprison 25 percent of the world’s population.
“I can’t do tongue-in-cheek anymore,” Gay says. “The myth is that they [ex-offenders] don’t want to work. It’s just not true.”
Operation New Hope’s Ready4Work program requires nonviolent ex-offenders to submit to a strict application-and-evaluation process, followed by four to six weeks of classes, depending on the individual. They’re required to dress professionally, and if a client doesn’t have the clothes, Ready4Work will find some. If they don’t have transportation, Ready4Work will provide bus passes. Some days, they even provide lunch.
Ex-offender clients are assigned a life coach and a caseworker to walk them through the thorough training program, and stay in touch after they re-enter the workforce.
Ready4Work has 150 employer-partners, and Gay takes their employment needs seriously. As a former insurance executive, Gay says his current mission is all about minimizing risk.
“I want to be able to underwrite everyone who walks through that door,” he says.
So far, Gay’s team at Operation New Hope has underwritten 2,500 trained employees who are ready for work. Seventy percent of Ready4Work’s graduates stay in their jobs for a year or more.
And there’s another important statistic: People who re-enter the workforce after they get out of prison are much less likely to re-enter the criminal justice system. While the U.S. recidivism rate is 70 percent, Ready4Work’s recidivism rate boasts a very low 15 percent.
“Some seeds will hit and bloom quickly, and some will take longer,” Gay says.
Gay and his team at Operation New Hope have cultivated success in a program that reunites families and restores lives. They will soon hold a national summit on recidivism reduction, Operation Reform, in Jacksonville on Nov. 18 and 19.
For information about speakers (including CNN’s Van Jones) or to buy tickets for the summit, please visit here.
Julie Delegal, a University of Florida alumna, is a contributor for Folio Weekly, Jacksonville’s alternative weekly, and writes for the family business, Delegal Law Offices. She lives in Jacksonville, Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.