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Criminal record, mental illness hindering job search? Second chance here

An inmate receives a Prison Fellowship Life Recovery Bible.
An inmate receives a Prison Fellowship Life Recovery Bible. | Prison Fellowship

When I meet someone new, I don’t lead with the worst choices I have ever made, a mental health diagnosis, or the ways my family has struggled. Like you, I try to make a good impression and build a relationship. But for millions of Americans, the hiring process removes the opportunity to have a human interaction with a prospective employer who takes the time to hear the whole story.

One in three American adults has a criminal record, one in five live with a mental illness, and nearly one in ten has been homeless at some point in their lives. I have had the honor of meeting many neighbors who have experienced these realities, and I have seen the power of a second chance to find work, restore a sense of purpose, and start over.

Our organization, Better Together, helps churches host second chances job fairs which show hospitality to neighbors like Gavin and Nate who are facing barriers to employment. Following a bout of COVID-19 and a resulting mental health struggle, Gavin had been out of work for seven months, and his unemployment was starting to put a strain on his marriage. Nate was recently released from the Department of Corrections, and he knew he needed to find work to provide for his three children.

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At our job fair, Gavin and Nate met Steven Russell, the owner of Creative Architectural Resin Products Inc. (CARP). Steven came ready to extend second chances and when he saw their curiosity and desire to work, he hired them both. They began training immediately and within several months, Gavin and Nate had increased production by 30%.

We have kept in touch with Gavin and Nate, and both continue to thrive. Gavin’s mental and physical health have improved, and his marriage is healthier now that he can, in his words, “come home and know I’ve pulled my weight.” Gavin shared, “If I hadn't found the Better Together job fair, it’s hard to imagine where I would be right now. I’m certainly in a much better place mentally, and it’s helped me out tremendously.”

For Nate, the job with CARP was an unexpected blessing, helping him pay his bills, find purpose and provide financially for his children. In his words at the time of his hire, “I didn’t expect to be in this position so quickly after being released from the Department of Corrections. [...] I get up excited every morning to come here. This company is growing, and I’m a part of that. It humbles me. It gives me dignity.”

Stories like Nate’s and Gavin’s are not unique, but many who face similar challenges have not found the next chance they need. Nearly 75% of neighbors who have been released from incarceration are still unemployed a year later, which contributes to our nation’s high rates of recidivism. For those neighbors who, like Gavin, have faced longer bouts of unemployment, it only gets harder to find work as more time passes. After a while, many give up. Numerous studies have indicated that, especially for men, unemployment leads to higher rates of depression, addiction, physical health problems and even domestic violence.

The clear connection between work and healthy families is what first prompted Better Together to create the Better Jobs program, which empowers churches to host job fairs and offer job coaching. Better Together’s original program, Better Families, assists families who are at risk of separation through foster care. We found that over 76% of the families we served were in crisis because of sudden or long-term unemployment, and we sought to do something about it.

As our programs have grown, we have increasingly witnessed the need for job seekers to meet employers who are willing to extend a second (or third) chance following an incarceration, long career gap or other barrier. Our second chances job fairs, culminating in our annual Nationwide Day of Second Chances, are a celebration of grace and the potential each of us has, with the right opportunity, to start over.

Our fifth Nationwide Days of Second Chances is happening this month April 16 and 18. Churches and employers will come together across the country to create a welcoming environment for neighbors like Nate and Gavin to unleash their potential and build a strong foundation for a future that is much brighter than anything in the past.

To learn more about how to support or participate in Nationwide Days of Second Chances near you, visit

Megan Rose is the CEO of Better Together, a nonprofit organization that helps parents in crisis address the root causes of their struggle and keep their children out of foster care.

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