Horticulture programs help ex-offenders seek successful reentry

Participants in City Green’s Garden Corps program.

While horticultural and gardening programs within jails and prisons provide excellent training to prepare inmates for possible post-release employment, similar programs for ex-offenders can do the same. They also, in many cases, provide internships and even paid employment.

Garden Corps, operated by City Green in Paterson, N.J., is one of these. It offers ex-offenders an eight- to 12-week course in sustainable landscaping and organic gardening practices. Those who successfully complete the class have a chance to participate in a four- to six-week internship program. The program’s objectives, in addition to conducting horticulture training, include teaching participants job skills, self-esteem and interpersonal skills that will aid them in their reentry. Garden Corps will also give them a chance to assume leadership roles and gain a sense of the positive impact they can have within their community.

About 20 students at a time take part in the course. The ex-offenders are chosen by three of City Green’s partners – St. Paul’s Community Development Corp., the Kintock Group, and Straight and Narrow, Inc. (part of Catholic Charities) – that work with ex-offenders.  After participants complete the course, City Green staff members choose those who will go on to have an internship.

The New York Horticultural Society, which runs the GreeenHouse horticultural training program on Rikers Island (see previous week’s blog entry), also operates GreenTeam, an internship program for GreenHouse graduates. GreenTeam provides further horticultural training, as well as transitional work opportunities, job placement and help in developing job search skills.

The Society has contracts with all five New York boroughs, and GreenTeam members work on projects that include maintaining gardens, installing green roofs on the buildings of nonprofit organizations, landscaping city parks and planting trees in local neighborhoods.

Although it’s not specifically for ex-offenders – the organization was actually created in 1993 by former professional basketball player Will Allen to give local teens an opportunity to grow food for their families – Milwaukee’s Growing Power offers training in horticulture both at its national headquarters and at satellite sites around the country. The training is geared towards members of community groups to teach them how to plan, develop, operate and maintain community food projects in both urban and rural areas. The weekend trainings are offered once a month from January through June, and about 14 scholarships, which include the workshop fee, transportation and accommodations, are offered for each one.

Those who would like to work as an intern on a farm and learn firsthand from the farmers who own it can find opportunities in the Sustainable Farming Internships and Apprenticeships Directory on the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service website at https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/internships/index.php.  Just click on a state on the map of the U.S. to find a list of individual farms in that state that offer internship and apprenticeship programs.

For more information on the programs in this article, visit their websites at:

City Green’s Garden Corps program   http://citygreenonline.org

New York Horticultural Society’s GreenTeam   http://hsny.org/horttherapy_greenteam.html

Growing Power   www.growingpower.org


Horticultural programs provide therapy and job preparation

Participants in the Insight Garden Program at work at San Quentin State Prison near San Francisco.

Gardening and horticultural training programs in jails and prisons around the nation not only prepare those incarcerated for potential future employment but provide horticultural therapy as well.

Horticultural therapy is the practice of using gardening activities under the supervision of a trained therapist to achieve various goals. Although it has been around for a while and is used in a variety of institutional settings, it has only recently been recognized as a tool to help inmates and ex-offenders in their emotional and physical rehabilitation.

Gardening can produce serenity, self-esteem, a sense of accomplishment and an ability to channel negative or aggressive energy into the creation of something beautiful and beneficial. In addition, it can also help those incarcerated improve their attitudes, work toward rehabilitation and prepare for their post-release lives. Research indicates that it can also reduce recidivism.

During the decade since the Insight Garden Program was founded at San Quentin State Prison outside San Francisco, more than 1,000 inmates have participated in this program that includes work in a 1,200-square-foot onsite organic flower garden and classroom instruction in plant propagation, irrigation, garden maintenance and design and budgeting, among other things.

Research conducted by Beth Waitkus, the organization’s program director, studied 117 former participants who had paroled over an eight-year period and found that only seven of the men went back to prison. IGP has partnered with Richmond, Calif.-based Rubicon Programs and Oakland, Calif.-based Planting Justice on a post-release job placement program to further its effectiveness.

The Horticultural Society of New York operates GreenHouse, another successful program, on Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail with a daily average population of 13,000 inmates. Instructors teach groups of about 37 men and women at a time the skills needed to design, install and maintain gardens using facilities that include a two-and-a-half-acre garden, a classroom and a greenhouse. More than 1,500 participants have gone through the program, according to Hilda Krus, GreenHouse’s director. The Horticultural Society has also created a vocational internship program, GreenTeam, for graduates who wish to continue to hone their gardening skills post release.

The Society has produced an excellent manual, “Growing With the Garden: A Curriculum for Practicing Horticulture with Incarcerated Individuals,” that is available as a free PDF download on its website. The manual covers everything from how to create a garden and what to grow to how to plant fruit trees and instructions on creating a prison nursery. It is an excellent resource for other jails or prisons that don’t have a garden project but would like to start one.

Philadelphia’s Roots to Reentry, another innovative program, was created by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society in partnership with local landscaping firm KJK Associates; the city of Philadelphia; Bartram’s Garden, one of the nation’s oldest botanical gardens; and the 55-acre Awbury Arboretum.

Roots to Reentry operates within the Philadelphia Prison System and offers participants a 16-week training program that includes instruction in landscaping, horticulture and other related skills, as well as life skills. The training takes place onsite at the prison system’s garden in northeast Philadelphia and at either Bartram’s Garden or the Awbury Arboretum. Participants also receive the support of a career coach to help them prepare for life post-release. The program’s partners are creating a network of potential employers to offer work to the graduates of the program once they are paroled.

While many prison industries train inmates for jobs that are either far too specialized or not especially relevant, horticultural programs provide skills that can be applied to jobs almost anywhere. And those who are entrepreneurial can start their own landscaping business or, at the very least, grow some of their own food to eat in their backyard, on a rooftop garden or in their local community garden.


For more information on the projects in this article, visit their websites at:

Insight Garden Program

Horticultural Society of New York’s GreenHouse

The Society’s “Growing With the Garden: A Curriculum for Practicing Horticulture with Incarcerated Individuals.”

Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Roots to Reentry


Efforts to “ban the box” continue

If Assembly Bill 1831 passes the California State Assembly, it will become the latest victory in a nationwide effort to “ban the box.” The “box” refers to the place on job applications which asks applicants to state their criminal history information.

The bill, sponsored by California State Assembly member Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento) and currently in committee, states that a California city or county or a city or county agency may not ask an applicant’s criminal history on the original application form. Once the government or local agency determines that the applicant meets the qualifications for the job, however, they can consider an applicant’s criminal history, At that point the applicant has made it past the original screening and has a better chance of being considered for the position.

This act would help remove some of the barriers to employment for the one in four adult Californians who have been arrested or convicted. It follows the action of the California State Personnel Board, which, in June 2010 under Governor Schwarzenegger, removed “the box” from the application form for California state jobs.

California’s action will put it at the forefront of a bi-partisan movement across the nation to begin to remove the barriers keeping ex-offenders from becoming employed and, in the end, help reduce recidivism rates.

California has joined five other states in these efforts to delay inquiries into an individual’s criminal record during the employment application process. In Connecticut and New Mexico, the inquiry delay applies to state personnel and licensing; and in Minnesota it applies to all public employment. Hawaii and Massachusetts have taken the most progressive steps; in those states, the delay applies to all public and private employment.

In addition to the California State Personnel Board, several California cities and counties have also instituted measures to delay inquiry. These are Alameda County, San Francisco County and the cities of Berkeley, East Palo Alto, Oakland, Richmond, San Francisco, Compton and San Diego.

More than 30 cities and counties in other parts of the U.S. that have adopted fair hiring policies include New York City; Austin, Tex.; Baltimore; Boston; Chicago; Cincinnati; Cleveland; Jacksonville, Fla.; Memphis, Tenn.; Minneapolis; New Haven, Conn.; Providence, R.I.; Philadelphia, Penn.; St. Paul, Minn.; Seattle; and Worcester, Mass.

Banning the box is not only the equitable thing to do, but it will offer employers a wider pool of qualified applicants. In the February 2012 issue of HR Magazine, Mark Washington, human resources director for the city of Austin, Texas, said that since the city adopted a policy to delay inquiry into applicants’ criminal histories, more qualified candidates with criminal backgrounds – candidates who previously may have opted against completing the application due to the background questions – have applied. “There are extremely talented and qualified people who happen to be ex-offenders,” Washington said. “They are just as productive as people who do not have criminal records.”


How to create a vision poster

When looking for a job, you need to consider everything possible to keep motivated and inspired. One thing you can do is to visualize your goals. What will getting a job do for you in terms of a better life? What will you be able to do with the money you earn?

You can visualize these goals in your mind, but it’s even better to create a vision poster to remind you what the benefits of getting a job are.

I have a friend who is an expert at this. She was creating her own freelance business and put a big piece of poster board on the wall in front of her computer. On the poster board she pasted pictures cut out from magazines. These pictures were symbols of her goals – what type of jobs she wanted, how she would be able to live better if she got more work, and all the things she would be able to do with that money.

She cut out pictures of a nice-looking house; a waterfall in Hawaii, where she likes to go on vacation; a German shepherd like her dog; a Jeep Cherokee, her favorite car; even a hot fudge Sunday, her favorite dessert. She also wrote down her financial goal and other words that offered inspiration.

Every day she would start out by looking at the poster and all the things she would be able to get if she got enough work. This type of poster is not only fun to make, but it also will inspire you to meet your goals.

What would you like to put on a vision poster? Page through old magazines for ideas, and think of the words that symbolize your goals. Make a vision poster and use it to inspire you. You might be surprised at how effective it will be.


Job seeker success stories show out-of-box thinking style required

A challenging job market requires creative minds. Those who think outside the box will be the ones who succeed. And workforce development expert Larry Robbin and attendees at his workshop sponsored by the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development on March 6 highlighted the techniques and success of some of these maverick job seekers.

Here are their stories:

  • A woman went into a retail shop and bought something very cheap, like a pair of socks. As she pulled out her wallet to pay, she said that she wanted to speak to the manager. The manager appeared in an instance thinking there’s a problem with the product, and that’s the point when the woman began to talk about her job search and what she could do for the manager if he hired her. He did.
  • A young man was applying for a warehouse job, and at the end of the interview he pulled out a notebook. He told the interviewer that he’d only been out of prison for two weeks but had been to apply in person at 240 places, all of which were listed in the notebook. The hiring manager leafed through the pages and saw his local Ace Hardware store and asked the ex-offender to tell him about the store. He described it exactly, proving that he had indeed been there, and the hiring manager was so impressed he hired him on the spot.
  • A man went to a job fair looking for a printing job and ended up talking to a banker about opportunities at her bank. That position wasn’t right for the job seeker, but he asked the banker, “Who does your printing?” The banker wasn’t sure but said she would find out and let him know. That connection led to a job.
  • An out-of-work lawyer, went to law firms in the evenings and put his resume in a manila envelope which he slid under the door of each office. Why did he do this? The first person to arrive in the morning is usually the senior partner who runs the firm, and that person would see the envelope on the floor, pick it up and read what’s inside. An unorthodox way to look for a job, but it worked. The lawyer found employment.
  • One of Larry Robbin’s clients went for a job interview with a janitorial service and asked the company why they didn’t do forensic cleanup. This type of job, also known as crime-scene cleanup, is performed by services that mop up the mess after violent crimes. The employer replied that it was a very good question, because it’s good work that brings in contracts with cities and states. Everyone they hired to do it in the past, however, left because they couldn’t stand dealing with the mess. The job seeker said that he had been a medic in Vietnam and had seen terrible things.  He said “if you hire me on the spot, I will build your forensics business.” He was hired and did what he promised to do.
  • People like to do businesses at places that hire people like themselves. Take the disabilities market, for example. That market, according to Robbin, is bigger than the African-American, Hispanic and Asian markets combined. He told the tale of a guy with disabilities who went into a grocery store and told the manager that people with disabilities shopped at the competition. “Hire me and I’ll get the disability market,” he said. “I’ll do publicity and distribute leaflets to potential customers.” He was hired, and within six months 29 percent of the store’s business came from people with disabilities.

Success is finding a gap in the market and offering to fill it or be determined enough to impress a hiring manager. In the case of the warehouse, the manager had probably never seen an applicant so driven. The grocery store manager had probably never even considered the value of hiring a disabled person. The janitorial service owner had considered forensic cleanup, but couldn’t find anyone to do it. There are opportunities everywhere. You just have to find them.

What are some success stories you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you.



Protecting your privacy on Facebook

Facebook is facing privacy issues once again – the latest reminder of how careful you must be when dealing with social media and how important it is to think things through before you begin your job search.

The social media company recently contacted employers telling them not to ask for the passwords of job applicants, a practice that seems to be more common than you might expect. In the current cutthroat job market, people may be so desperate for work that they’ll do anything to get a job, even if it means giving their Facebook passwords to a hiring manager as part of the interview process.

It’s not illegal – at least not yet. On March 27, Democrats in the House of Representatives attempted to create legislation that would prevent employers from forcing job applicants and employees to give them their Facebook or other social media site passwords. They tried to insert a clause into an FCC reform bill that would accomplish this, but it was defeated.

Although potential employers can ask you for your Facebook or other passwords, it is a highly unethical practice, and you would have to seriously consider whether you really want to work for a company where the hiring manager or human resources person did such a thing.

Having access to your password and profile could provide information to employers that they are not allowed to ask about in interviews. Through your photos and posts, they might be able to figure out whether you are married, how many children you have, possibly your religion, whether you have tattoos, what your house looks like, where you’ve traveled, who your friends are and the fact that you are an ex-offender (although at that point they should already know that).

Although most potential employers probably won’t ask for your passwords, chances are pretty good that they will do a search of you online and see what they can come up with before they interview you.

National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” talk radio show focused on the privacy issues that social media raises on one of its segments this week. A listener, who works as a hiring manager for a small law firm, emailed to say that when recently hiring an office assistant and courier, she researched all of those she was interested in online before choosing which ones to interview. During her research she found that several of them had lied. One even said he had a clean driving record in his cover letter but had tweeted that he had gotten a ticket for running a stop sign. Because the job involves driving, the law firm wanted someone with a squeaky clean record.

This is a lesson to everyone to be absolutely certain that what you put in your resume and what you tell potential employers is consistent with what you put in your social media postings. You also need to check out the photos that are on your Facebook page, and make sure that none of them have the potential to offend anyone. There should be no photos of you showing off your tattoos, or, if you’re a woman, showing off your body in a bikini. Delete photos that show extravagant displays of affection, or even displays of drinking. Just holding a beer stein or glass of wine might make some employers question what you do after-hours.

In order to be safe, you may want to do what many job seekers do these days – deactivate your Facebook account. That way, you won’t get into trouble with potential employers who may not like what they see. (And you can never be sure what they might not like.) You can deactivate your Facebook account by going to “account settings,” clicking on “security” and following the directions.

Once you find a job, you can go in and reactivate your account without losing anything that was in it. You still may want to clean it up, however – and always be very careful about the things you put up on social media sites. You never know when the boss might want to check on what you’re doing outside of work. Be very wary. What turns up in a web search may come back to haunt you if you’re not careful.

What have you done to protect your online image? We would love to hear your tips and suggestions.


Irvine’s One Stop Toastmasters Club helps job seekers develop skills

The One Stop Toastmasters Club’s meeting is in progress.

We at Jails to Jobs highly recommend Toastmasters International and recently discovered that the One-Stop Career Center in Irvine, Calif. hosts its own chapter, an idea that other One-Stops or job-development agencies might want to consider doing.

Toastmasters provides excellent training for job interviews. With more than 270,000 members in 13,000 clubs in 116 countries, it was founded in 1923 as a nonprofit organization that helps its members develop public speaking and leadership skills. Clubs meet weekly, bi-weekly or monthly, depending on the location, and meetings last for an hour to an hour and a half.

In a very supportive environment, members take turns speaking on various topics, and the organization is set up to train them to be able to do so. New members receive a manual with five speech projects to get them going. After completing these, they can move on to an advanced communication series with 15 different manuals. Each of these manuals also outlines five speech projects, and many of them are career-related. Members receive awards as they progress through the program and are encouraged to take on club leadership roles. A special manual teaches leadership skills, and members are often guided by mentors who have previously held the position they assume.

Each club has its own personality and types of members, but at the One Stop Toastmasters Club #4637 in Irvine those involved include job seekers, who may come as guests as they search for jobs and can join the club if they find work in the area

The club, which formerly met at a software company that ran out of space to host it, has been at the Irvine One-Stop for two years. It provides a much-needed venue for job seekers to improve their communication skills, and its membership includes One Stop staff members. Stephen Springer, a disabled veterans outreach program specialist with the State of California Employment Development Department, is one of them.

“Toastmasters is vital for developing interview skills, especially the Table Topics section of Toastmasters, where you get impromptu questions,” he says.

Springer thinks that having a Toastmasters club connected to a One-Stop is a great idea. “It helps clients. Once you get the word out and make it available to clients, they can see how getting involved in a chapter helps them learn to communicate better to employers and to people around them when they’re marketing themselves,” he adds.

And being able to effectively communicate one’s skills and abilities is key to finding opportunities in today’s competitive job market.

To learn more about the Irvine One Stop Toastmasters, visit http://4637.toastmastersclubs.org or to learn about Toastmasters and how to set up a club, visit http://www.toastmasters.org.


Mustards Grill Executive Chef Chef Dale Ray on how to succeed

Dale Ray, executive chef, Mustards Grill

Although the restaurant business is a field that tends to be ex-offender friendly, making it to the top takes talent, hard work and, most of all, the proper attitude. Or so says Dale Ray, executive chef of Napa Valley’s noted Mustards Grill.

He should know. Ray has a long history in the restaurant business, beginning at Café PariZade in his home town of Durham, N.C. and included culinary school at L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland and stints at Citronelle in Washington, D.C., Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va. and Wild Goose on the shores of Lake Tahoe in California.

On March 12, he spoke to a group of students at The Bread Project, an Emeryville, Calif.-based nonprofit that offers food service and bakery production training to low income people, many of whom are ex-offenders.

Those interested in the culinary business have choices, Ray told the group. They can work in restaurants, schools, hospitals, food service companies such as Aramark or corporate kitchens at Google, Microsoft, Hearst magazines or other large companies.

How do you get ahead in the culinary business if you’re just starting out?

Here are some tips:

  • Look at the type of food service you want to be in to make sure it fits your personality.
  • Do whatever it takes. Dale worked for free many times to get where he wanted to be.
  • Develop your palate. Taste everything you can.
  • Be sure you develop the right attitude. Attitude is the most important thing. “There’s something we like to say in the restaurant business,” Ray said. “Check your ego at the door.”
  • Learn how to follow directions and take orders. The kitchen job ranking is based on the military and very hierarchical, with titles including chef, executive sous chef, sous chef, pastry chef, etc.
  • Be resilient. In the restaurant business there’s so much pressure. The life of a chef is very hard work and requires 10-, 12-, 14-hour or even longer days.
  • Start working all around and figure out your passion, unless it’s baking. If baking is your passion, the decision has already been made.
  • If you want to open your own restaurant, go work at a place like you imagine that restaurant to be, and work harder than you’ve ever worked before.
  • Be a lifelong learner. Never get to the point where you know everything, because there’s so much to learn.
  • Develop what Ray calls “systems thinking.” Everything you do affects everything else, and make sure you understand that.

Having been through adversity is excellent experience for culinary work, in some ways even better than professional culinary training. “Some kids go to culinary school and think they’re a chef, and others work for years but have been through adversity,” he says. “If you can walk out of culinary school and be humble and have a good attitude, that’s OK, but being able to deal with adversity is better. There’s always adversity in the kitchen.”

Ray believes that no matter how bad a person’s background is they can change. “You can change. I’ve hired people who I thought would change. Sometimes they did. Sometimes they didn’t. I tried to help people change,” he said. The hardest thing in the business is to be able to take criticism, but that’s also the most important thing. Otherwise you will never improve.

Being a chef takes many talents. It’s actually several jobs – four in fact, says Ray. You have to buy products, store products, develop products and sell products. As a chef you have to be able to do all those things, and often do them in a very small space. Mustards has a small kitchen for its volume of business. Last year 150,000 diners went through the restaurant, which only has 60 seats. It takes a special kind of person to handle that type of environment – a person like Dale Ray.


Helping people find jobs in the aftermath of the great recession

The recession has changed hiring practices in both subtle and dramatic ways – ways that some job developers may not be aware of. Larry Robbin, a nationally known expert in the area of workforce development, brought job developers up to date in a workshop sponsored by the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development on March 6.

“The recession has changed how companies hire and who they hire,” Robbin says.

With more than 14 million people out of work and less than 3 million positions open, the job market has become more competitive than at any time since the great depression of 1929.

There are two things that job seekers need to be successful in today’s market, according to Robbin. No, it’s not networking skills or a top-notch resume, although these are important as well. The most important qualities of job seekers are their ability to manage rejection and their determination to stay in the game. Otherwise they lose.

As job developers, you need to look for every angle you can to encourage healthy competition. Job seekers have to know how to compete, says Robbin. If you’re doing mock interviews, for example, have the people who are observing vote on the best interview and critique what is said. Those who don’t present themselves well may get their feelings hurt, but it will prepare them to do better during the actual interview.

Celebrate success

When anyone in your organization gets a job you should make a big deal about it. Send out an email saying that so and so got a job offer, and here’s what they did that was creative to get that job. Put an easel or a whiteboard in a public place with the names of everyone who got a job that week written on it. Encouraged those hired to get up in front of a group and tell others how they got their job. This is particularly good for people with barriers to employment. Celebrate their success.

Create successful role models. As a society, we’re information heavy and role model light. The more role models you can show people, the more they will be able to stick with their job search and eventually succeed, Robbin says.

Partner with local businesses

One barrier to employment for many people is a fear of meeting employers. These job seekers may lack the confidence that they’re good enough or don’t think they make a positive impression. To overcome this, create situations where employers and job seekers can meet in a relatively informal setting. Sponsor “Meet the Employer” days, and invite hiring managers from local companies to attend.

If you have business people on your board of directors, get them to come into the program to talk to your clients. Contact your local senior center and find retired people who can talk about their careers and what made them successful.

Teach job seekers how to deal with stereotypes

You need to work with job seekers so they understand the stereotype of the group they represent. Those looking for work need to determine what employers are going to be thinking about them and what can they can do to counter that. Ex-offenders should develop a Turn Around Talk and Turn Around Packet, which is explained on this website and in our soon-to-be-published book.

Older workers need to talk about how much physical activity they do and how healthy they are. Workers in their 20s actually miss three times as many days of work as seniors, but the common belief is that seniors will be absent because of health issues.

Help job seekers develop face-to-face networking opportunities

While many people think of “networking” as something that you do at official business events, there are so many informal ways to get to know people who may be able to help you in your job search. Here are a few of them:

  • Volunteer for an organization or event where many people are involved.
  • Take a class.
  • Get involved in a hobby group.
  • Join a sports team.
  • Get involved in a political campaign or cause.
  • Attend local government meetings where business people will be present.
  • Join Toastmasters International, which will provide excellent opportunities to practice speaking in public in preparation for interviewing.
  • Join a church group.
  • Go to a gym.
  • If you have children, get involved in their school.
  • Attend local chambers of commerce mixers.
  • Throw a party or picnic and invite friends with different types of jobs. Tell them to bring a friend.

Helping job seekers with barriers

There are many ways to work with job seekers who face barriers, but one excellent tactic is to look at the annual reports of various large public companies to see if they have initiatives to hire people with certain types of barriers. Many do. Some hire ex-offenders, others the homeless or those with disabilities.

Teach seekers to consider profit centers

You need to teach job seekers how to determine what a business’s profit centers are and how they can contribute to them. For example, a restaurant owner is hiring someone to bus tables. Figure out what the three most important profit centers for this job are. The most likely are the ability to do the work quickly and efficiently so there will be a higher turnover of customers. Not breaking any dishes. Being kind to customers so they’ll want to return.

We’ve offered a few tips on how to help your job-seeking clients find work in these tough times. Can you think of any other ideas? If so, please send them our way.


Vanderbilt students design Triple Thread Apparel to train ex-offenders

Lead printer William Williams prepares a screen to print custom T-shirts. (Photo by Chris Cole.)

Students at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., have created a business to help give job skills and experience to the ex-offenders they share a home with.

Their home, Dismas House, a unique halfway house which may be the only one of its type in the nation, was created nearly four decades ago by a former university chaplain to bring students and ex-offenders together. He believed that both groups have much in common as they begin to embark on new lives.

While Dismas House has been around for a while, its business was created more recently. In fact, it was just a few years ago that Kyle McCollom was returning to his dorm after sharing an evening meal with the residents – a meal where the discussion centered on how difficult it is for ex-offenders to find employment. As he walked past a student wearing a custom T-shirt, he had the sudden inspiration to create a T-shirt company that would employ Dimas House residents. Others were enthusiastic about the idea.

“At the time I wasn’t living at Dismas House, but I decided to move there to learn from the guys how a workforce development enterprise could help them,” McCollom says. “I don’t know their world. I don’t know what they go through every day. Ex-offenders often have trust issues, because they’ve been promised so many things. I needed to gain their trust, and one of the ways I could do that was to move into the house.” He ended up living there for eight months, and during that time worked on preparations for the Triple Thread T-shirt company.

Like most new ventures, it wasn’t easy. And like many new ventures one of the greatest challenges was raising enough capital. The students did that by a two-month Kickstarter campaign, which brought in $11,000, a grant from the Corrections Corporation of America and another grant from the Clinton Global Initiative, which gave them the money they needed to buy their first equipment.

Triple Thread was officially launched on Sept. 10, 2010, when 300 people came to celebrate the new business and its initial employees. Since then, more than 30 Dismas House residents have been trained to work in the business. Ex-offenders stay for a period of three to six months at Dismas House, and during that time, some of them work part time at Triple Thread with the understanding that they’re spending the rest of their day looking for employment that will sustain them once their Dismas House residence is over.

While employment at Triple Thread is usually finished when the ex-offenders leave Dismas House, the company’s first employee, William Williams, is still around as the lead printer and a partner in the endeavor.

Although the original marketing plan for the company’s T-shirt sales targeted colleges across the nation, efforts have since been switched to Nashville and the city’s nonprofit organizations, schools and businesses. Mail orders, however, are coming in from places like Austin and St. Louis, and a new online design program will allow customers to create designs electronically.

The response of the Nashville community has been incredible, according to McCollom. “The concept of using a sustainable source of revenue to solve a social problem is very appealing,” he says. “It makes Dismas House as a nonprofit a more enticing opportunity for foundations. We’re saying invest in our nonprofit, and we will have returns year after year, and by increasing revenue we’re increasing opportunities for employment. We’re very thankful for the help that the Nashville community has given us as investors, customers and supporters.”

Perhaps other organizations working with ex-offenders may want to explore the idea of setting up a screen-printing business. The PanZou Project in North Miami, Fla., runs one to help rehabilitate gang members and ex-offenders, and there may be others doing the same.

If you’re considering creating a custom T-shirt business to provide employment for ex-offenders in your local area, check out the American Screen Printing Association. This association is actually a for-profit business, but it offers a series of free how-to articles and videos on its website covering a wide variety of topics ranging from how to set prices to technical issues encountered while printing. Once you establish a business you can join the organization for free and be listed in its online directory.

Those really serious about launching a business of this type, however, can save themselves time and headaches by hiring someone with a background in the screen-printing industry. Kyle says he wasted a lot of time trying to teach himself the business by watching YouTube videos, but nothing beats a general manager who knows what they are doing.

For more information on Triple Thread, check out http://triplethreadapparel.com. To learn about the PanZOu Project, go to www.panzouproject.org, and to find information on the American Screen Printing Association, visit www.screenprinting-aspa.com.