In January, Columbus launched a new career development program for recently incarcerated people. After months of work, and overcoming additional obstacles presented by the pandemic, the first class of participants graduated last week.
As with most celebrations these days, the participants of the Empower Development to Gain Employment (EDGE) graduated over Zoom. Of the 28-person inaugural class, 25 completed the program, 21 are currently employed, 16 earned a certification, two earned a G.E.D. and one is enrolled in a Bachelor's program.
EDGE is a partnership between Alvis House, the city of Columbus, and the Workforce Development Board of Central Ohio. It was intended to be an intensive in-person program – five months, five days a week of job skills training – but the pandemic quickly changed that.
"Suddenly, Central Ohio’s robust economy came to a halt," said Alvis president Denise Robinson. "The future of a workforce development program based in classroom learning and credentialing did not look good."
She says the program flipped from being classroom-based to being more individualized.
"EDGE staff determined how to provide programming in a way that would work for each client, and took into account where each client lived and what resources from computers to smartphones each client had," Robinson says.
EDGE taught classes and workshops over Skype or by phone. They connected participants to online certificate training programs.
Mayor Andrew Ginther stopped by the virtual graduation to offer his congratulations.
"I truly believe what someone does on their worst day does not define them forever," he said. "EDGE allows for second chances. I believe that your hard work and dedication to this program will give you the second chance you need."
For many participants, it was a long road to get to graduation, and an even longer journey to get into the program in the first place.
Bobbi Tubbs says her history of substance use is what kept landing her in jail and prison, over and over again. Eventually, she says, she hit rock bottom.
"I was so disappointed in myself that last time, that if I could bond myself out, I would bond myself out and kill myself," she said. "From that point on, I knew I didn’t want to live the way I was living."
On a snowy night in February, WOSU visited with EDGE participants like Tubbs to learn what they were hoping to get out of the program.
"I really didn’t know what I was signing up for, but I knew that if it was going to help me change my life and empower myself through gaining work experience and employment that I needed to be there," Tubbs said. "Because being able to take care of myself is one of the biggest obstacles I face."
Tubbs said she wanted to gain stability, and eventually she wants to help out other women struggling with re-entry from the prison system.
"I’ve been in and out of the institution six times and I’ve never had a safe place, safe people that supported me, or a vision or a purpose for my life," she said. "I believe if you have those three things and you can help people to get to that, then they will be successful in their transition."
Clifford Jackson lived in Alvis's residential program while he completed EDGE.
"I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, what I want my future to look like as far as my career," Jackson said. "That’s important for me because I definitely don’t want to go back to where I come from."
Like Tubbs, Jackson also struggled with addiction, which led to his incarceration. He says he knew it was time for a change, but was afraid of what the future might hold.
"I have a lot of fear. A fear of failure," he says. "Alvis staff talked to me and told me, 'Relax,' told me, 'We got you.' And that was important, to know that someone cares."
Jackson and Tubbs graduated from the EDGE program last week, and despite the pandemic's hit on the economy, both are employed.
Jackson recently left Alvis's housing and moved back in with his family. While he works his new job, Jackson completed his Chemical Dependency Counselor Assistant certification, so he can give back by helping others struggling with addiction.