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The Oakland branch of a national nonprofit that specializes in helping people with criminal records to find and maintain employment has been awarded a $200,000 grant.

The Center For Employment Opportunities (CEO) Oakland branch received the Bank of America Neighborhood Builders Grant, which was meant to “deploy capital and build cross-sector partnerships to advance economic and social progress as part of our approach to responsible growth.”

According to Heidi Racherla, senior vice president of Enterprise Business and Community Engagement market manager for Bank of America, it’s something of a “Cinderella story,” in that CEO received the grant the first time it applied.

Jason Walker, a recent Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) graduate, uses a hose to spray down the side of a house in Pleasant Hill with a chemical that will rid the area of any bugs or pests or bugs. Jason has worked as a pest control technician at Aantex for the past few months, after completing the job placement program at CEO. April 12, 2018. Photo: Natasha Dangond

“Everyone on the selection community from Bank of America found so much value  in the impact they were making in the Oakland community, especially with people of color who are disproportionately affected by the challenges involved in returning to the workforce after being incarcerated,” said Racherla.

Only two Neighborhood Builder Grants are awarded annually in the Bay Area: one in Oakland and one in San Francisco. The grant recipient can choose how to use the money, but it must include leadership training for an existing director as well as an “emerging leader” within the program.

CEO has helped place those returning from incarceration into full-time employment for the last 30 years, by offering services in education, short-term paid transitional employment, full-time job placement and post-placement resources.

The Oakland chapter of CEO opened in 2011 and has grown to be its largest office outside of New York City. This year, as many as 200 parolees from Alameda County will be given full-time employment, upon completing the program.

CEO will accept anyone who is recently released and recommended by their parole officer, apart from those convicted of sex crimes or arson, but its focus is on young adults between the ages of 18 to 25, because of the higher rates of recidivism.

“Older people share experience, strength and hope with younger people,” said Lonnie Tuck, director for CEO in Alameda County.  “Some staff and site supervisors were also formerly incarcerated.  Those with experience on both sides can guide and give a lot of navigation to those in the program.”

CEO credits its success to its “evidence based mode,” which is structured in phases—the first called “pathway to employment” is a week of life skills and job readiness training.  The second phase  consists of transitional employment, during which participants temporarily  work for for CEO and their contracted employers.

“This transitional employment is used as a kind of lab,” Tuck said. “This is also a time where issues that impede employment, such as childcare and homelessness, can be addressed.”

The third phase is job development, which connects participants with employers. Once they have a job, they work with a retention specialist who helps them address any issues that arise during their first year of full-time employment.

CEO also awards cash incentives to those who make it to phase three—as long as they retain their job, they get $25 per month with an opportunity to receive $125 or a device such as a tablet or cellphone at the six-month and one-year mark.

Jason Walker, a recent Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) graduate, poses for a portrait after work in Pleasant Hill, CA on April 12, 2018. Photo: Natasha Dangond

Jason Walker, 31, is a recent graduate of CEO’s program and found the program key to his successful transition back into the workforce after being in and out of incarceration, his last stint was over a year for minor drug charges.

According to Walker, he felt the people at CEO were really invested in his success and willing to stick their neck out for him with employers in order to get him a full-time job once he graduated.

“CEO showed me that with a little help I could prosper in the program. So I’ve been working a steady job and been able take care of my family, I’ve been employed for over a year now,” Walker said. “It was on me to put in the work in but they gave me the tools and showed me the way. I didn’t see that finish line for a long time, but they definitely gave me a blueprint for how to succeed.”

Tuck said he plans to use the Neighborhood Builders Grant to further develop his management capacities.

“I want us to expand, to increase the number of people who can participate,” he said. “I mean, I get referrals from Stockton, from Redwood City, and I want to give everyone the opportunity … Growing means attracting new employer contracts, and attracting agencies that will give us those opportunities for transitional employment. I can’t emphasize enough how important that transitional employment piece is to the overall success rate of our program.”