KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When April Martin stepped into the Lee’s Summit, Missouri, Police Department earlier this year, she didn’t have any fear.
Previous run-ins with police led to a felony conviction for Martin, but this time she entered the police department as a new person, ready to work.
“It was one of the best job sites I’ve ever done,” Martin said. “Great people. It was a great atmosphere. It’s ironic, the tables have turned.”
Martin is now a laborer with Turner Construction Company. She was part of a team that totally renovated Lee’s Summit’s 20-year-old police headquarters building.
“I went from being in jail to building one,” Martin said.
Her turnaround is one of many that leaders in the Kansas City area business community want to facilitate.
After three years of planning, this summer, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce launched its W.O.R.C. Initiative. The name stands for work opportunity for returning citizens.
The program’s mission is to create a pipeline where people returning from incarceration can get a job - with the stability and purpose that comes with a job preventing them from going down the wrong path again.
“Really, what we’re hoping to do is change a mindset that employers will be open to hiring returning citizens so that they have a meaningful and real chance at making a life for themselves when they come out,” explained Jeff Simon, a civil attorney at Husch Blackwell and former member and president of the Kansas City, Missouri, Board of Police Commissioners, who co-chairs the KC Chamber’s W.O.R.C. Initiative.
Simon pointed out crime becomes a business problem when high crime rates prevent businesses from recruiting and retaining talent, or force some businesses to consider relocating. Recidivism is one way to address the root of crime.
Although hard to calculate exactly, many experts estimate 75 percent of returning citizens will be arrested again at some point upon their release from incarceration. In other communities, job programs have reduced recidivism rates to about 10 percent.
“It just makes sense that if we are employers and recidivism can be affected by gainful employment, then let’s open our doors to returning citizens we might not have otherwise thought about before,” Simon reiterated.
Turner Construction has been involved in various second chance programs with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri and Jackson County, Missouri, Prosecutor’s Office, which give people with criminal backgrounds or drug-related arrests an opportunity to earn a living. That’s how Martin landed a job with the company.
Turner is now participating in the KC Chamber’s W.O.R.C. Initiative.
“We’re all neighbors, we’re all fellow citizens and we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing in our communities, but more importantly, we’re giving back in such a way that is only moving our society in the forward direction,” explained DeJ’on Slaughter, Turner’s business and community advocate in Kansas City.
Martin is one of the employees Turner supervisors request most often. Construction executive Dave Dudzik said that is proof programs like W.O.R.C. can make a difference.
“If an individual has a consistent, solid job that gives them purpose and you have a good family that’s behind you, then you’re going to be successful,” Dudzik said. “That’s all we’re trying to do, is provide them that opportunity.”
Martin said Turner has become a family for her. Employees have never judged her, nor prodded her about her background. She said the structure of the job keeps her on the straight and narrow.
“I lot of people want to change and they just need that opportunity to change. Being a felon, it’s hard to find a good job, like a career. There are jobs out there that will hire you, but they’re dead-end jobs. Being able to have a career is something that’s great,” she said.
Contact the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce for more information on its W.O.R.C. Initiative.