Seeking a chance to show their worth

Nothing about the curriculum at Center for Community Transitions LifeWorks! program is typical, given the clientele.

Every student at the center in Charlotte has been convicted of a crime, and most have been in prison.

Helping people with criminal backgrounds is the center's chief focus. It's also considered a big reason why the center is among the least popular of United Way's 91 member charities. Last year, United Way's 100,000 donors designated only $7,399 to go specifically to the center.

“Programs involving people who've been locked up are a tough sell,” says Myra Clark, executive director of the center. “If taxpayers are given a choice of how to spend their money, they'd rather spend it on parks than garbage pickup or street sweepers. They want their money to go to the nice things, but 97 percent of those locked up for a crime come back to the community.”

It's small nonprofits like the center that have the most to lose, should predictions come true about this year's United Way campaign. The economy is expected to do significant damage, as well as the controversy surrounding a $1.2 million pay package given last year to United Way's former CEO.

The center depends on the United Way for 16.9 percent of its budget, about $136,000, the bulk of which comes from the Community Care Fund, a pool of undesignated money doled out at the agency's discretion. United Way estimates that for every dollar invested in the center, the program returns $63 to the community's economy.

“When individuals come to us for help, they come because they realize they've hit rock bottom,” says Erik Ortega, a program director for the center. “They reach a point where they are fed up and want to change. We challenge them to prove their commitment.”

One of the most popular programs is an Employment Readiness Workshop that teaches former inmates how to deal with questions about their time in prison, particularly during job interviews. During last week's session, one student had to admit in front of the class that he'd been arrested 30 times.

“We figure if they can talk about that in front of a class of 30 people, they can handle it in a one-on-one job interview,” says Ortega.

Anthony Polk, 42, of Charlotte is one of the program's successes. The father of three spent two weeks in jail in 2006. He's now working full time at Morris Costumes, which has enabled him and his daughters to move from an extended-stay motel into an apartment.

“We still don't have enough beds to go around, but I'd rather be struggling and doing honest work, than breaking the law with a quick hustle,” he says. “I promised my girls that I'd keep the family together and I have.” Current student Terence Brown was released Sept 3 after serving two years in prison. He's living in a men's shelter and hopes to graduate from the program this week.

“What we want employers to know is that we can change,” he says. “I want an opportunity to show that I'm not the man you see on paper.”

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