YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Bernard Jones Jr. is one of the success stories of the National Center for Urban Solutions – and he wants others to understand the same opportunities are available to them.
Urban Solutions, winner of the Brain Gain Leadership Award for Workforce Development, was a big part of Jones making the transition from spending most of his adult life incarcerated – 26 years and nine months, to be exact – to a better life.
While in prison, he began to take important steps toward a different future. He embraced getting his education, earning two associate degrees, one in culinary arts, the other in entrepreneurship and business.
Jones worked through Ohio Means Jobs, helping other inmates learn how to upload their résumés and look up job opportunities. He worked to sign others up for a Medicaid program, allowing those getting released to have insurance and possibly get wellness checks and dental cleanings.
But when Jones finally got home to Youngstown, he just wanted to relax and get a vehicle. He went to the Ohio Collaborative to see if someone could use him and his knowledge. They suggested he go to the National Center for Urban Solutions (NCUS), a program that helps people from a variety of circumstances find training for jobs in nursing, robotics and IT.
Jones was interested in modern manufacturing. NCUS set him up to receive training, including Occupational Safety and Health Administration and mechanical safety certifications, through Eastern Gateway Community College and to attend the 80-hour boot camp through the WorkAdvance program. While Jones already knew some of the things the program teaches about résumés, mock interviewing, image and customer service, he embraced the program and used it as an opportunity to help others.
After passing the certification test at Eastern Gateway, Jones says he recognized his progress was real and the program really wanted him to succeed.
“I hear so much about there’s nothing out here offered to anyone coming out [of prison] and that’s not true,” Jones says. “There’s no such thing as red tape. You have to be able to just move forward and [hit] the ground running. So I embraced it all.”
NCUS partners with the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition, which helped to get Jones an interview with one of the companies in the coalition, Ellwood Aluminum in Hubbard.
Jones impressed Ellwood Aluminum and was hired. Ellwood made him feel like part of the family, that he was in a company where it is not just about profits and everyone celebrates the company’s successes. His role is a furnace operator using a front-end loader to gather all the metal ingredients so they can be melted down to create a new product.
John-Michael Oliver says the people at NCUS are proud of Jones’ success. He continues to mentor Jones, who has worked at Ellwood Aluminum for more than 180 days, received a raise and now has both a car and a home.
Jones returns to speak to groups at the boot camp, which Oliver calls inspirational for the others in the program, giving them the confidence that they too will succeed.
“[Urban Solutions] elevated who I am,” Jones says. “When you reach out to different organizations, especially in my case, they were excited that I was wanting to come out of incarceration. But the assistance wasn’t there with the excitement.”
But NCUS told him they were there for him, provided him with training and the mentoring he needed to be successful. Now he returns those blessings, by helping others embrace the program and the training.
“If you believe in it, focus, you can get the job that you seek, pay your bills, take a vacation and just enjoy life,” he says.
Jones is more connected to his family, including a daughter, who he is proud to say is a Youngstown police officer. He has seven friends, mostly from the Cleveland area, who were incarcerated 20 or more years, and are doing things to be successful. They keep in touch and encourage each other. He now has savings in a bank account, something he never had before.
“Nobody is holding you back. Don’t always use the fact that nobody is letting you do anything. Doors are open for God, people and places to bless you. So seek out your blessing and opportunities, ” he says.
Jones now realizes that crime can affect so many, not just the victim, and trickle down throughout the community. He hopes to create a nonprofit organization – From Rehabilitation to Revitalization – and encourage those returning from incarceration to come home and help to rebuild their communities. The goal is “to transition back out into society and to flourish as if [they] never left,” says Jones, a 1991 Youngstown East High School graduate.
Jones celebrated the one-year anniversary of his release in October.
The Bureau of Justice reports about 70% of those released in 2012 were arrested again within five years. Jones believes the transition has been easy for him without the expected rough patches because he did his homework and sought out resources.
NCUS continues to provide him with those resources and guidance.
“The mentoring aspect of NCUS is they are there for you as you transition into your employment,” Jones says. The mentors stay in contact, talk to the employers, walk around and see you at work. “Not making sure that you are doing your job. It’s that you love doing your job, that they placed you in the right place. That you are adjusting,” he explains.
Jones likens the shadowing aspect to having a big brother, someone to talk to about issues that arise while adjusting to a new position and the lifestyle that can come with it, someone who has your back.
“It’s not just about the education. It’s just not about the training aspect,” Jones says of the NCUS program. “It’s the follow-up that reminds you of all the things that you learned and the importance of it.”
Pictured at top: Bernard Jones Jr. was released from prison one year ago and works at Ellwood Aluminum in Hubbard.