willard bryant_cc_fc_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

FORT LAUDERDALE — Returning to civility is often a difficult process for ex-felons, especially those who have been in prison for a long time. For the past 10 years, many of them have walked through the doors of the Opportunity Industrialization Center of Broward County, where they are given a second chance at turning their lives around.

They include Willard Bryant, 48, who was convicted of robbery and second-degree murder. Upon his release last October, Bryant was required to undergo a mental assessment. He had no money but heard that OIC could pay for his test. While there, he found out about other services the organization provides and immediately signed up for the ex-offenders re-entry program. After four weeks of training, Bryant was placed with a janitorial company.

“OIC played an important role and I’m grateful for the people that helped me reintegrate back into society,’ Bryant said in an interview. “I never had a job before ’cause I went to prison at 17. OIC prepared me to deal with the workforce, they taught me how to write a resume, proper conduct on the job, life skills, computer skills – which I dearly needed.

“I was a brand new man coming out there. There was no cell phone and computer and all these mechanisms when I left. Going to OIC really helped me.”

The OIC of Broward celebrated achievements such as Bryant’s with a 10th anniversary Jazz Gala, cocktails and a silent auction Saturday at the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 in Fort Lauderdale.

“Way too many of our young people and adults have little to no skills,” Newton Sanon, the OIC’s president and chief executive officer, said in an interview. “Maybe they didn’t finish high school or had little to no direction in terms of a career development coming out of high school or even post-high school and, so, OIC is a community-based organization that provides job training and support for those folks.”

Some 300 inmates are released monthly in Broward County and, like Bryant, about 100 of them turn to OIC each month for help to  transition into the job market and society. The agency says its Re-Entry Initiative for ex-offenders has a recidivism rate of less than eight percent.

OIC of Broward is part of a national network, OIC of America, which the late Rev. Leon Howard Sullivan, a Baptist minister, started in an abandoned Philadelphia jailhouse in 1964.

Sullivan became known widely as an advocate for justice, equal rights and equal employment opportunities for the impoverished so they could become self-reliant, economically productive and capable of improving the quality of life for themselves and their families.

OIC of Broward says its mission is eliminating poverty, unemployment and illiteracy in Broward by providing extensive job-training programs for high school dropouts, teenage parents and ex-offenders.

Maurice Dawkins started the program in 2001 and, according to agency officials, it has since provided more than 8,000 clients with job training and placement.

In 2007, the organization beat out several other community service agencies in Florida for an award from then President George W. Bush.

Sanon says the program has been successful because of the case management by his mix of counselors, instructors and case managers who create a warm environment for those seeking help.

“We make sure to include them in the process from day one,” Sanon said. “We work together with them and keep contact for at least nine months to address their job performance, as well as their living conditions. During this time we also provide all the support they need to be empowered and productive.”

Even with its track record, Sanon said, his biggest challenge continues to be strengthening the organization’s relationship with the workforce. Many companies are skeptical about hiring persons with limited formal education or a criminal record.

“The demand for our services continues to conflict with our compassion to serve as many people as we need to, especially with our prison re-entry project,” Sanon said. “Some are apprehensive, some are open to doing it and we’ve been able to be successful relative to our contract. But relative to the amount of people that come to see us, we find ourselves always looking for people who are willing to give these folks a chance to earn a wage.”

The agency operates on a budget of under $4 million, most of the money coming from the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the United Way of Broward County.

As part of its work, the agency continues to monitor Bryant’s job performance.. After working with the janitorial company for five months, he got a full-time position with higher pay at another company. His goal is getting a car and a home.

“My whole focus is on continuing to excel and take care of myself,” Bryant said.