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Living Classrooms' Project SERVE helps ex-prisoners gain job skills

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Posted at 12:50 PM, Aug 12, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-12 18:17:28-04

When you've spent decades behind bars, re-entering society and getting your life back in order is a challenge.  That's where Living Classrooms' Project SERVE comes in to help.

Where Antonio Jackson comes from, nature isn't a big deal.

"We don't pay any attention to it," he said.  "It's irrelevant."

Now, nature is extremely relevant to Jackson.  He leads a small landscaping team at Fort McHenry, trimming, pruning and planting around the park's 42 acres.  Jackson has come a long way since he was released from prison nine months ago, after serving 23 years.

"I've never had a job outside of being in prison," Jackson said.  "Living Classrooms gives me that opportunity to see hands on how to work and also how to learn other things that people who are re-entering don't get."

Project SERVE members receive what's called a "wrap-around" service, said John A. Jones, a case manager with Project SERVE.  They learn how to get a job, how to secure housing, how to manage their finances and more.

"Support, housing and a job.  They get those three things, you're going to have success," he said.

The success of Project SERVE depends on donations and support of businesses to employ their members. Recently, the Walmart Foundation donated $75,000 to Living Classrooms, which went toward new computers. Jones said what makes their programs reputable among businesses is the hours of training they put into each member.

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"They know these guys will be up in the morning, ready to come to work.  When they get to work, they're going to work.  They're going to be respectful, they're going to do all the things an employer wants,"

One of the groups that works closely with Living Classrooms is the National Park Service.  Brooke Derr is a horticulturalist who works at Fort McHenry and Hampton Park in Towson.  She oversees the Project SERVE crews, including Jackson.

"I have 100 acres that have to be cared for between the two parks.  I need hands, I need people," she said.

Through the partnership, people like Jackson learn new job skills and supervisors like Derr build new friendships.

"Ms. Brooke is one of the best," said Jackson.  "She taught me a lot, she taught me how to even like nature."

"To see them start to care about what they do that just makes my day," Derr said.

Project SERVE is always looking for both donations and employers who are willing to add Project SERVE members to their staff.  For more information on the program and Living Classrooms, click here.

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