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COLUMN

Agency that offers offenders a second chance needs a chance of its own

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For more information or to help support Blue Jacket, go to www.bluejacketinc.org.

Blue Jacket struggling to keep up with demand for training, jobs

Tuesday, June 25, 2013 - 7:52 am

Blue Jacket's motto is its mission: “A second chance is everybody's business.”

But now the nonprofit agency that provides job training, clothing and employment-placement services to ex-offenders is looking to improve its chance for survival, thanks to a cash crunch due in part to its own success.

“I hate to do this. I know there's donor fatigue,” Executive Director Tony Hudson apologizes even as he explains that, unless the organization can raise $50,000 or so by the end of the year, it may not be around to help people like Emerson Parish, a former employee of Stuart Manufacturing, who was in the basement of Blue Jacket's headquarters at 2826 S. Calhoun St. on Monday fine-tuning his resume.

“I'll be better-prepared,” said the well-spoken, impeccably dressed 58-year-old, who is seeking to put his life back together in the wake of drug-related legal problems. “I need motivation,” Parish conceded – just the kind of constructive kick in the pants Blue Jacket's four-week training course provides.

In one sense, the future has seldom seemed brighter for the agency named for the Shawnee chief whose warriors were defeated by Gen. Anthony Wayne in a 1794 battle near the Maumee River and began as part of the county's Community Corrections department before going independent about 10 years ago. Its current location is five times larger but less expensive to operate than the building it vacated last year, and that allows room for a money-making garden tended by volunteers, a larger clothing bank for job-seekers and potential income from the rental of surplus space.

Thanks in part to an improving economy, the number of Blue Jacket clients finding jobs is also looking up – which, ironically, helped create Hudson's dilemma.

Because Blue Jacket covers the first 30 days of its client's private paycheck before being reimbursed by the employer, that can create a cash-flow problem unless the agency has enough money in the bank to cover the advance. And that's precisely what has happened.

The criminal justice system, which refers many recently released offenders to Blue Jacket, wanted to lower its costs earlier in the year and as a result cut its referrals in half. To prevent an even larger erosion in referrals, Blue Jacket responded by lowering its training fees. And when referrals rebounded, the agency had to add staff to accommodate the influx.

All of which represents an expense Hudson has not been able to completely recover because of the lag time between expenses and reimbursement.

Although I do not doubt the need or Hudson's sincerity, it's likely Blue Jacket will find the support it needs. About $13,500 has already been raised, and an upcoming golf event is expected to generate another $13,000. Loans are also possible, Hudson said – which should be easily repaid if the outlook is as promising as Hudson suggests.

Even so, public support for this previously low-profile agency deserves to be encouraged, and not just because employment is one of the most reliable means of reducing recidivism. About 17 percent of Blue Jacket clients end up back behind bars, but that's less than half the normal rate, Hudson said, noting that about 70 people are on a waiting list who could be helped if Blue Jacket had the money to do it.

There's one more thing you should know: Although it was founded with the help of a $200,000 federal grant and until recently was relying on $400,000 in federal grants to underwrite its $700,000 budget, the agency recently decided to reject future grants to become self-supporting. Strings attached to the grant made it impossible to accept some applicants, Hudson explained – and nearly two full-time people were required to document, report and administer the grant.

Blue Jacket leaves training in specific vocations to its partner agencies. Instead, it provides training in mostly “soft” skills: How to dress for an interview, speak, serve customers, prepare a resume. As Parrish noted, such skills can be essential to people who have been out of the job market for years and are struggling with the added baggage of a criminal record.

But keeping such people out of jail makes more than financial sense, Hudson insists: Blue Jacket also wants to assist people who want to help and, yes, even redeem themselves. “It's a middle-class philosophy. Too often society mollycoddles people looking for work,” he said.

Mollycoddling, bad. Honest work, good. But to get there some people need a little extra help. “If our product is good, there will be demand,” Hudson said, and the demand indicates Blue Jacket's product – its people – will get that second chance.

The agency deserves its chance to make that happen.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.