As the newest member of ACEnet’s staff, I have a lot to learn. Before I began working for ACEnet, I was vaguely aware that they do something with food. I had come to know and expect the delicious smells wafting over the building from my years at working for ReUse Industries next door. Now, I can put those smells to names like Milo’s Whole World Gourmet, Casa Nueva, or Kaiser’s. In fact, I have learned that there are several small food manufacturers working out of the Athens Food Ventures Center shared use kitchen. And this makes sense because ACEnet’s mission is “to grow the regional economy by supporting entrepreneurs and strengthening economic sectors.” This is the type of thing you might see Pork and Pickles do in the kitchen on a nearly daily basis. Yet in reading ACEnet’s mission statement, it is easy to see that food is not the only type of “economic sectors.” There are plenty of entrepreneurs in the community working in different and interesting economic sectors.
I have learned that many of ACEnet’s clients are engaged in strengthening economic sectors. For example, I met a woman by the name of Liesbeth (pronounced LeaseBet). Originally from Holland, she now operates a business called Mini Maestros. In this space she has created a music studio for young children, for she is especially interested in what she calls “Whole Child Development.” This means she wants to develop the idea of music informed play by caretakers and children, the idea of pattern recognition through music, and the idea of literacy as a function of music. Parents, grandparents, and caretakers get a chance to learn and grow with their loved ones, and looking around Mini Maestros, you immediately get a sense of the care and passion Liesbeth brings to her students and neighbors.
I learned about two other tenants on another end of the building, who ACEnet helped get their start: Ohio is Home and Red Tail Design. Six days a week, Ohio is Home is the place to buy the finest Ohio merchandise in the city; I am obviously biased. However, it is easy to become biased after walking in the store; at once, I was struck by their uniqueness and quality of goods; At Ohio is Home you will find something they design and you will want to keep. (In writing this article, I see they sell Ohio ornaments, which I should buy and send to my ornament collecting mother.) It is hard to quantify all the things that Red Tail Design can do, from web design and marketing to laser engraving and printing, you can find their products all over Ohio. For example, I recently attended a conference in Columbus where several members of the Ohio CDC Association were given awards for their work in communities all over the state. Red Tail designed and created these awards.
At this conference I was lucky enough accept an award for the hard work ACEnet has done over the course of the last year, principally through the efforts of my predecessor Sarah Cornwell. ACEnet received an award for the CDC project of the year. This project is geared toward the reentry population: those that have repaid a debt to society. Often, for people in the reentry population, their sentence does not end with a jail or prison term; they are left to suffer the consequences of their crime after successfully completing their time and leaving prison. In one study I read, researchers found that after eight months of being released 44% had not worked for at least a week with 60% citing a criminal record as affecting their job search (Visher and Kachnowski, 2007). Regardless of ones feelings surrounding desert and merit, it is easy to see that these community members are having a difficult time, and this affects us all. As all of us who have struggled to find a job know, employment is key in this country; it helps our communities flourish; it gives meaning to our lives; it offers us a way to become the people we want to be. For folks in or out of the reentry population, employment helps them remain arrest free. This is particularly true of parolees as one study indicates, “employed parolees are up to three times more likely than unemployed parolees to remain arrest free” (as cited in Zajac 2013). For this reason, among others, ACEnet has taken the first steps to addressing some of these problems.
The solution to these problems are unclear. Most successful reentry programs are in big cities, like Los Angeles, Chicago, or Columbus. In these places people can rely on a public transportation system, a strong social services umbrella, and a close proximity to a variety of employment opportunities. This cannot be said of rural areas. As of 2017, 2.3 of Ohio’s 11.6 million residents live in rural areas, and by definition this means a considerable amount of land (ruralhealthinfo.org). While there are some resources located in these areas, they are often spread out. This means it takes considerable resources to get around: a vehicle, driver’s license, gasoline, insurance, and repairs. All these things require money and for those just released, this means they often need to rely on friends and family to help them or go without.
Thankfully, there are some solutions to these problems being promoted by some really awesome people. I was introduced to Shawn Stover at the OhioMeansJobs center in The Plains, formerly known as The Work Station. It is here where I learned about the great programs that are offered to citizens of the state of Ohio. Shawn explained that he mostly deals with SNAP benefits, and not the other programs available through the OhioMeansJobs center. Also available at the work station are programs like the CCMEP, TANF, WIOA, and GED programs. Many of these programs come with incentives; for instance, if you get a job through their program, you get money; if you get your GED, you get money, and there are other monies available as incentives to finish these programs.
Of the GED program, it is branded as ASPIRE, and this is run by Scott Hatfield. He offers people the opportunity to take the GED test for free. They only need to contact and do 12 hours of prep work before taking the test. He claims the test is modular now, and this means if you fail one section, you can retake that one section, but you do not have to retake the sections you passed. The price goes down after your first attempt (although it’s free) from $30 to $10 and one can take it three times, if after failing three times you must wait 60 days and then you can take it again, and it will be free again to take. This process could go on forever. Scott claims that the OhioMeansJobs center in Athens County is unique in that it allows people from other counties to test within the Athens County location. So, if you happen to be visiting, living, or just find it more convenient, you can take the GED test at the Athens County site rather than returning to your county of residence.
Of the TANF or OWF, WIOA, and CCMEP programs, these are run by Kim Hobbs. The WIOA program is especially cool; it offers low-income people with a H.S diploma or GED funding if they wish to get a two-year degree. Funding means a grant of up to $10,000 per year for up to two years, which you do not have to pay back. The training program must also be designated as a “in demand” profession. This list can be found on the website. There are stipulations: one may not receive the funding for more than one program and they must maintain a 2.0 GPA while in the training program. The training program must also be accredited; it can’t be just anybody.
In terms of reentry populations, Shawn found that he gets 90 to 100 people a year through his office in Athens County. Often, when people leave prison or jail they have nothing. As I found out, they only own a single pair of pants. In fact, while I was learning from Shawn, a young man came into the office to talk to Shawn about reentry and using the services of the OhioMeansJobs site. Shawn mentioned that they often give out jeans and shirts to people in need. The young man was interested, but they didn’t carry his size. I was lucky enough to help because I had been carrying around a box of pants for two years in the trunk of my car, hoping one day I would lose the weight to wear them. Sadly, that day never came, so I decided to donate that box to the OhioMeansJobs and that young man got several pairs of pants that fit. He was pleased and I felt less pressure to someday fit into those pants.
If I were to rank the coolest person at the OhioMeansJobs site, it would definitely be Shawn Stover (sorry Kim). Not only does he have a day job, but he also doubles as the Athens County Reentry Task Force organizer. Shawn’s position is unique and incredibly valuable; for many people returning to their home communities, they are simply dropped off in the middle of a town with no transportation. It is through the task force that he is able bring different organizations together to promote the services important to our community. For example October 5th during Athens Area Stand Down, all transportation in the city was free to those attending the meeting at the fairground.
The Task Force meets every other month and invites people interested in reentry from all over the county and state. At my first meeting I met representatives from Rob Portman’s office, the Athens VA, OMJ, ACPL, SEPTA, First UMChurch, United Methodist Women, HAPCAP, Hopewell, Integrated Services, ODRC, Appalachian Pagan Ministry, Faith in Public Life, Personnel Plus, Women4Recovery, and Athens Children Services, among others. I was really impressed with the wide variety of people interested in helping people return to their communities. It is the goal of this task force to share ideas, solutions, opportunities, and services so that the community can be better prepared to deal with and respond to the needs of the reentry population of Ohio. In this way, ACEnet is able to offer entrepreneur training and resources to any individuals that may be connected to these agencies.
You may be wondering, since you’re on the ACEnet website, what has any of this got to do with ACEnet’s mission “to grow the regional economy by supporting entrepreneurs and strengthening economic sectors.” ACEnet has been partnering with OMJ supporting entrepreneurs in the reentry population by offering one-on-one technical assistance designed to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to start a business, or offering various trainings at the Food Ventures Center on ACEnet’s Athens campus. ACEnet has attended reentry fairs at various correctional institutions in the Southeast Ohio area and offered video conferencing to men and women inside them. Reentry fairs are especially important and interesting, they take place within the prison or correctional institution and offer community organizations a chance to interact with inmates close to their release date.
For example, last week I was at the Noble County Correctional Reentry Fair. While I’ve watched plenty of television shows about prison and I have heard many stories from people with direct experience, I was not prepared for how I felt as I approached the prison. I felt as if my will, consciousness, and opportunities became smaller as the prison got larger. The razor wire looked menacing. The doors were thick. The windows were small. I felt the Eye of Sauron upon me. The surveillance felt complete, and as perhaps a symbol of something to come, my glasses suddenly broke as I entered the lobby. Yet, the guards were professional. They followed long tested procedures for entry. I sat in a clean, well-lighted place filled with other agencies interested in helping facilitate the men’s reentry into communities all over the state. Some agencies provided direct employment, like CleanTurn. Others, like the Urban Columbus League, have provided help and care to the Columbus area through a variety of programs. Over the course of several hours, it felt as if one thousand people moved through the room visiting different booths and talking to employers and librarians alike (Like Athens, The Akron Library has an amazing makerspace, which even includes a green screen to make ads or promos!).
Contrary to the apprehension I felt at the start, many of these men were friendly, bright, talkative, interested, inspired, and hungry for opportunity. I learned that Noble County Correctional offers small business classes and trainings in the prison, and many of these classes are taught by men that have direct experience running their own small business on the outs. Many men expressed a desire to either start their business back up or return to an already established business where the owner had been holding their spot for the entirety of their stay. Many spoke about all the training they received while in prison, and how they would use those skills, like ServSafe level 2 to gain employment or start their own catering business.
And perhaps this brings us back to the beginning, to ACEnet’s mission, “to grow the regional economy by supporting entrepreneurs and strengthening economic sectors.” I was there to extend the resources and knowledge of ACEnet to these men who will soon make a home in our communities and neighborhoods.
This is the end of part one. A second post is forthcoming and will describe how ACEnet’s mission intersects with the opioid crisis in Ohio.
Community Update by ACEnet Microenterprise Program Trainer, Kyle Verge
Visher, C. A., & Kachnowski, V. (2007). Finding work on the outside: Results from the returning home project in Chicago. Washington D.C.: Urban Institute Press.
Zajac, G., & Hutchison, R., & Meyer, C. (2013) An Examination of Rural Prisoner Reentry Challenges. Pennsylvania State University: Justice Center for Research.