The fading black letters spelling “LOBO” on the top of Ben Stark’s knuckles are from a different time in the ex-convict’s life.
The letters mean “lone wolf,” said 40-year-old Stark. He points to two women’s faces on the back of his neck, and a sleeve of tattoos up his arm, all of them etched into his skin during his time in prison.
“I run by myself,” said Stark, whose violent criminal history has kept him behind bars for much of his adult life.
But now, Stark doesn’t have to run alone.
Stark is among 343 offenders who have worked with SNAP’s Restart program, which is in its second year. The Department of Labor-funded initiative helps place convicts into jobs and houses, while providing them with life-skills classes and mentorship in an effort to reduce their likelihood to reoffend. Of those, 227 have been placed into jobs.
On a Friday afternoon, Stark was at R.W. Fab, a steel fabrication company, where he works as a welder. Blue sparks flew around him as he worked, using those same hands he once used for committing crimes to build something new.
“I have the work ethic to really be someone in life,” Stark said, his nose and scruffy beard covered in soot.
John Ruddach, Stark’s supervisor at the shop, worked with him at R.W. Fab about eight years ago. Ruddach admits he was afraid of Stark then, but Stark’s a kinder, gentler person now.
“It was rough, but now it’s night and day,” Ruddach said.
Restart teaches intensive job-skills classes and partners with WorkSource and the Fulcrum Institute, a program dedicated to helping find offenders jobs. The program also provides housing, substance abuse counseling and mental health support for those who need it.
Derek Ferraro, financial services program manager and organizer of the Restart program, said early numbers show participants improving their lives. The average pay rate for ex-offenders is $9.94 an hour with a little more than 30 hours a week spent on the job; 63 have earned an industry-recognized certification, and 50 have entered postsecondary education, he said.
The program’s success is due largely to its “wrap-around approach,” as Ferraro calls it: Offenders are provided with more responsibilities and resources than just job training.
“If you put in housing, case management, job skills, mentoring, mental health, substance abuse counseling, now you’re really increasing their success rate,” he said.
SNAP monitors participants for a year, and only about 30 offenders have so far completed that year, Ferraro said. It’s too early to know whether the program will result in a lower rate of reoffense than the state average of 27.8 percent within three years of release.
However, the program’s early signs of success have already prompted SNAP to seek alternate funding options. The $1.2 million Department of Labor grant ends next September and is not renewable. Early next year, SNAP will begin applying for more grants to continue and expand Restart, Ferraro said.
Restart will stop taking new clients six months before the program ends.
“If we don’t have an approach like this sort of successful program, we’re sort of back to business as usual,” Ferraro said. “And business as usual is building bigger prisons, and that doesn’t work either.”
The Restart approach has made all the difference for 31-year-old Dustin Neeson, who is the new sous-chef at the Villaggio restaurant on the South Hill. He began working in restaurants at age 15, soon after starting to use drugs and alcohol.
“That’s been my biggest downfall,” he said.
Neeson’s alcohol-related crimes made it difficult for him to find a job. However, the Fulcrum Institute placed him with Villaggio and he’s in alcohol and drug counseling through Restart.
He points to his shoes, chef’s pants and apron: All were purchased for him by Restart.
“It’s been beneficial to make you feel human,” he said.
Jay MacPherson, Neeson’s Restart coach, works one-on-one with clients to ensure they’re staying on track with the program.
He and most of his clients meet every other week and talk by phone or email almost every week.
“It’s been very eye-opening seeing the challenges that our clients overcome,” MacPherson said. “They have a lot of barriers. They’re getting employment and starting a new life, and it’s an honor to come along.”
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