Beatrice Robinson served more than three years in federal prison for obstruction of justice after she refused to testify in a federal drug trial, she says. Before she went to prison, she had worked providing home health care for elderly and disabled people. But her job experience couldn't overcome the stigma of having served time.
"When I came home [from prison] and was in the federal halfway house, I had put in over a hundred applications, even McDonald's, and I didn't get hired by anyone," Robinson recalls. "I didn't even get a call back for an interview."
Then a counselor pointed her toward Boaz & Ruth, a faith-based nonprofit in Richmond's Highland Park neighborhood where ex-offenders can find a second chance at life.
Antiques dealer Martha Rollins established Boaz & Ruth in 2002, drawing its name from a biblical story about redemption. Its mission is to help former convicts reintegrate into society by teaching them skills that enable them to find jobs and better manage their lives.
"We work with people on competency so they can work through the shame and guilt" associated with being a former convict, Rollins says.
Themes of empowerment, renewal and community connections are central to the group's mission, she says, which is why Boaz & Ruth has dubbed its re-entry initiative "RestoreCorps."
The organization's track record has attracted attention from the administration of President Barack Obama — most notably from the White House Office of Social Innovation. In April, Rollins was one of about 100 directors of innovative nonprofit groups who were invited to a speech that President Obama made at the White House, encouraging new methods of attacking social ills. Obama announced that his administration was committing $50 million in grants this year to incubate promising social programs. Rollins hopes that RestoreCorps will be among those chosen.
She soon expects to make another visit to meet with White House administration staff.
"We're taking it to the next level," says Rollins. "We want [RestoreCorps] to be recognized as an innovative pilot program that can be replicated." To that end, she is in early discussions with Duke University about starting a RestoreCorps chapter in North Carolina.
Boaz & Ruth is funded by a mix of support from AmeriCorps and local donors, including churches, individuals and corporations, enabling it to continue building success stories like Robinson's.
Robinson entered the program in 2005 and graduated in 2007. Along the way, she took classes provided by Boaz & Ruth and learned about budgeting and finances; building strong relationships; increasing literacy; and public speaking. She also participated in the program's "Life Lab," learning the skills she would need to work in an office environment.
Now, she holds a job as a receptionist and an administrative assistant at the Harvest Store, one of five Highland Park businesses owned and operated by Boaz & Ruth. Robinson works alongside dozens of employees and community volunteers who support not only the ex-offenders in the program but the surrounding neighborhood as well.
In addition to the Harvest Store, which sells used furnishings, Boaz & Ruth runs a thrift store (Sunny Days), a moving company, a furniture-restoration business and a restaurant (Fire House No. 15) in the Six Points district of Highland Park. About a dozen properties within a three-block radius make up what the Boaz & Ruth team refers to as "the village."
The operation is a like a perpetual-energy machine: Its mission of renewal extends from human lives to old homes and all manner of donated items — furniture and clothing — that are folded into the businesses. The companies provide jobs and training opportunities for the program's apprentices, while contributing to the local economy and generating revenue to support the organization.
As well, Boaz & Ruth owns several of the neighborhood homes, which have been restored with the help of program participants who receive some training from professional contractors in construction and renovation. The homes, once finished, add to Boaz & Ruth housing for those enrolled in the program.
Those who guide the participants say the biggest lessons revolve around relationships.
Tony Scott, an instructor at Boaz & Ruth, coaches participants in conflict-resolution skills.
"There are various conflict-handling styles, so we just introduce those concepts," Scott says, "but we also use the day-to-day experiences of working at Boaz & Ruth, working with people, interacting with people, as the basis of understanding those concepts."
Calvin Carter, another Boaz & Ruth staffer, helps manage the renovation of the nonprofit's properties while training program participants.
Restoring properties, however, is almost a secondary goal, he notes. "Most of what we concentrate on is building job skills and job readiness — you know, being able to deal with your employer or your supervisor. …We get to relate to each other, help each other with our problems and play with power tools," Carter says, laughing.
About 250 ex-offenders have participated in the yearlong program and many are now gainfully employed. One successful graduate is now working for the U.S. Postal Service, Rollins proudly notes.
There is a palpable feel-good aura — Rollins calls it a "force-field" — that seems to surround the Boaz & Ruth village, which has become an oasis of opportunity in an inner-city neighborhood that was once inundated with crime and drugs.
It is a widely shared feeling at Boaz & Ruth, so Scott is only half-joking when he describes the organization as succinctly as he can. "This is the greatest place in the world. It's cool, and everybody benefits. End of story," he says, letting out a giant laugh.
Jack Cooksey contributed to this story.