Jerome isn’t the kind of person that you would guess was formerly incarcerated. That isn’t unique, though. You can’t see it on someone’s face. But Jerome is unique, and you can tell it from his calm presence and his easy smile. You can hear it in his voice, soft-spoken with traces of his Liberian-French accent. I wasn’t surprised when he told me he likes to mentor people at the gym. He likes to give people advice on working out, family problems and relationship problems. “I can tell,” he said, “and I just go over, talk to them, work out with them. That’s how I make friends.” I get it. I was there to interview him, and we’d barely talked for 20 minutes, but it was easy to imagine telling him about my problems. He wasn’t always in a position to give out advice, though.
Jerome immigrated to the US from Liberia with his father’s family 13 years ago, when he was about 14. He lived an ordinary life on the west side of Kansas City, where he enjoyed going to Union Station and Science City with his friends as a teen. As an adult, he found himself without direction. He was in school for civil engineering, but his heart wasn’t in it. Outside of school, he worked at McDonald’s for $10 an hour and hung out with his friends. Looking back, he says he was hanging out with the “wrong crowd.” He had the kind of friends who help you get into trouble, trouble that put Jerome in jail.
By the time he was released, Jerome says was thinking more logically than before. He had passed time in jail by reading and thinking about his future, and he came out ready to focus on what was most important. The future he wanted was elusive, though. He was living with his dad and trying to make new friends who could support him in the kind of life he wanted. It was hard to make new friends, though, and he felt isolated. On top of that, he was looking for work, and he needed something better than $10 an hour at McDonald’s. He didn’t have the kind of education or certificate he felt he needed, though, and despair dogged his heels, telling him he was a bad person, that no employer would want someone with his background. Without hope, he was slipping into depression.
It was during this struggle that Jerome’s probation officer suggested he look into Second Chance. He was immediately interested. At Second Chance, he was connected to a Resource Specialist who helped him fill out resumes, prepare for interviews and finally land a job. When asked what the most helpful part of the program was, though, it wasn’t just the job help, but the communication. The Resource Specialist asked about his job search, but also about how his day was and how his outside life was going. He said that she helped him see he wasn’t a bad person, but someone who made a mistake that could be overcome. “Talking to her,” he said, “made me feel like a person again.”
Jerome now works at Georgia Pacific, earning $27 an hour, but life isn’t all about the money. He’s made new friends and he enjoys going to the gym and spending time with his family. He’s focused on his future, and it’s full of hope. He wants to go back to school, this time for graphic design. He’s been drawing since he was young, and he wants to do what he’s passionate about. He’s proud of the person he’s become, physically and mentally. His advice for others in his situation is “don’t give up hope. Find your purpose. Talk to somebody.” It’s good advice, not just for returning citizens, but for everyone. Knowing what a change talking to somebody made in Jerome’s life, it’s easy to understand why he spends his time talking to people at the gym. Second Chance gave him a place to be heard, and now he can be that for someone else.