Regina Harrison credits the job-training program offered by Goodwill Industries of Arkansas with doing more than help her build a career -- it has saved her life and given her the tools to reconnect with her children and family.
Harrison has received two promotions since entering the nonprofit's Transitional Employment Opportunity program just nine months ago. She's ready to advance to a new role to help other Arkansans like her, those who have been through the state's prison system and face few employment prospects when released.
And Goodwill is expanding the program this year with four new training centers across the state, which will quadruple the growth of the initiative over the past 18 months.
"This place is like family to me," Harrison said last week while supervising about 30 other workers with troubled backgrounds. "It's more than a job here; it really did save my life. The people here believed in me before I believed in myself. I got the tools I needed to overcome anything."
Goodwill Industries will have more than 20 job-training centers in Arkansas with this year's expansion, which follows the addition of 11 sites last year. Last fiscal year, 42 graduates completed the 16-week curriculum. In the first eight months of fiscal year 2023, the program has already graduated 78 and many of them find employment with Goodwill. The program has graduated 500 Arkansans and about 50 of them are employed today by Goodwill.
Program graduates also are less likely to return to prison, Goodwill officials say.
Goodwill Industries of Arkansas began the program to provide job- and life-skills training to men and women reentering the community after incarceration.
Reentry training is a three-step process focused on helping graduates get a job, then get a better job and ultimately build a career, according to Chief Executive Officer Brian Marsh. Goodwill provides essential services such as resume development, career planning and job-search support and an employability assessment. Computer labs are available at all locations to help search and apply for jobs.
There also is eight hours a week of classroom sessions to enhance soft skills like budgeting as well as interpersonal development focused on workplace communications and conflict resolution. Program participants are paid for a 32-hour workweek with the ability to expand to 40 hours if available.
"This gives them a safe environment to learn in while they're here," Marsh said of the reentry program. "They work side-by-side with our employees and they're a paid member of our team "
Reentry training provides the foundation necessary to succeed in the workplace and at home, Marsh said.
"They've been in an environment where all the decisions are made for them and when you get out and have to make decisions in a challenging situation, you're not used to it," he added. "This program gets them prepared for when they're in a conversation with a boss that tells them something they didn't want to hear. This gives them more tools in the toolbox to make a good decision."
Goodwill provides graduates with jobs in retail stores, warehouses, marketing, finance and information technology.
The organization has partnerships with state and local corrections officials, parole officers and law enforcement agencies to help recruit Arkansans preparing for life after release.
The Pulaski County sheriff's office has worked with Goodwill over the past several years to provide jobs for graduates from the law enforcement agency's reentry and drug rehabilitation program and to supplement training and skills the sheriff's program doesn't provide.
Once a month, Goodwill officials outline their services to participants in the program, according to Kathy McConnell, director of the sheriff's reentry initiative.
"Goodwill does not just provide a job opportunity," she said. "Goodwill Industries is a training program that offers soft-skills training and helps with things like preparing a resume. When you've been in addiction for 20 or 30 years, you've lost some skills along the way. Goodwill reinforces the work that we do."
Goodwill has added 11 new Transitional Employment Opportunity sites since December 2021 after receiving a nearly $750,000 grant through the U.S. Department of Justice. The grant helped fuel the expansion but Goodwill officials says the reentry initiative is primarily funded by sales of donated goods. The organization's Arkansas operations had a $56 million budget in fiscal year 2022 and 92% of that is dedicated to supporting programs like reentry services.
Along with reentry training, Goodwill operates The Academy, a program that offers adults over 19 the opportunity to achieve a high school diploma. It is the only adult program like it in the state sanctioned by the Department of Education to issue degrees. The Academy also offers 19 job-training programs -- with plans to add another seven -- in six major industries, ranging from advanced manufacturing to health care.
Like Harrison, Steven Vaughan found a safe haven in the program and Goodwill after spending 6½ years in prison. Vaughan had a military background and worked 10 years in the education sector before going to jail but was offered no job opportunities after leaving prison. He entered the program in 2016 -- and today he runs it.
"In my mind I had all the tools to be successful when I got out," said Vaughan, who is director of the entire statewide program. "There's a common saying that you don't know what you don't know and I had a lot of barriers that I wasn't aware of. When you start getting turned down for jobs, you learn that those who say everyone deserves a second chance really mean they believe somebody should give you a second chance but it can't be their company."
The Transitional Employment Opportunity program provided a career and, more importantly, was a life-altering experience, Vaughn said, adding that the program restored his self-esteem and rebuilt his self-confidence.
"The way I thought about myself at the beginning of the program was not the way I thought about myself at the end of the program," Vaughn added. "I was still beating myself up. To see that other people believed in me is what really worked for me. I set my sights higher than I would have without the program."
Harrison entered Goodwill's reentry program in June 2022 and started work in an entry-level position with the nonprofit in Little Rock before being promoted to supervising a crew. And she's moving into a case-manager position to help others recently released from jail by providing hands-on mentoring and advice as they track through the program.
"I've lived that life and I can help because I know what it's like to not have anybody believe in you," she said. "That was my life but it's not anymore.
"I'm never going to leave Goodwill," Harrison says, tearing up. "This is where I want to be."