Offering second chance amid the bad news

December 07, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Today's story is about a new truck wash out near the interstate, which doesn't sound like much of a story, except that it's really about second chances and gratitude: One man, Matt Hitt, has succeeded repeatedly at business giving men who failed frequently at life, like Ralph Reed, another chance to turn things around.

It's a good, we-need-that story, and the timing is great - not just because it arrives in the season of giving and light, but because the struggles of thousands of Baltimore's ex-offenders and recovering drug addicts never end; their efforts at re-entry continue to be hard, often futile, even tragic.

In the past week, for instance, there was depressing news about two of the more than 3,000 men who have been in contact with The Sun since June 2005, when we first appealed to drug dealers to get off the streets and take some help finding legitimate work.

One man called here on behalf of his 21-year-old son. The father was a repeat offender who had returned to Baltimore on parole, found work and was trying to settle into his role as man of a house from which he had been absent for many years. He was worried that his son had been running with a bad crowd and selling drugs. The father wanted to get him into vocational training or a job. Last I heard, the young man had enrolled in a high school equivalency class, and his family was pleased.

But then, just a few days ago, his name showed up in a police report; he had been arrested in connection with a city homicide in October.

The next day, I opened a letter from the mother of a 38-year-old ex-offender who had contacted us in the summer of 2005 because of his difficulty re-entering society. Since emerging from prison several months earlier, his criminal record - mostly related to drug addiction - had made him ineligible for every position he'd sought.

At one point, he managed to land a job as a laborer with a demolition and excavation company. That was the last I'd heard of him - until last week.

A note from his mother, along with the man's obituary, showed up in the mail.

Her soft-spoken son had committed suicide by hanging. He had been worried that another parole violation (for failing a drug test) would send him back to prison. "Re-entry was very difficult for him," his mother wrote. "Too many barriers."

So this is why I was pleased to visit the large, misty bays of a new truck wash out on O'Donnell Street yesterday afternoon. It's called Baltimore Truck Wash. It stands where a sprawling gas station with a high canopy once sat, in the Baltimore Travel Plaza along Interstate 95. The investors in this $4 million complex intend to hire up to 60 ex-offenders to wash trucks - not because they have to, but because they want to.

This is highly unusual. Over the past 18 months, I've received hundreds of calls from earnest-sounding ex-offenders eager to find an employer but only a handful of calls from employers eager to find ex-offenders.

Hitt, a Towson accountant who has had a series of successful investments and businesses over the years, hooked up with three other investors - John O. Armiger, Sean Howearth and Larry Hoffman - to build the truck wash and go after some of the estimated 12,000 trucks that pass by Exit 57 of Interstate 95 every day.

More than that, Hitt wanted to do something to help in the effort to turn recovering drug addicts and ex-offenders into productive citizens. To do this, he approached the Baltimore Mayor's Office of Employment Development.

"We didn't go to him, Matt came to us," said Felix Mata, director of the city's Ex-Offender Initiative. "He wanted to create not just a successful business for himself and his partners, but something that would actually help Baltimore City."

Hiring ex-offenders at up to twice the minimum wage, offering a medical plan and employee-funded pension program, cutting down on the recidivism rate among the thousands of men who come home from prison every year - Hitt and partners are doing something that not only helps the city but helps the entire state.

The only things they required of the new workers was that they pass a drug test and not be afraid of heights. Sixteen men have been hired to power-wash trucks from top to bottom.

Armiger got to hand out the first paychecks a couple of weeks ago, and he described it as an emotional experience.

"Many of these guys had never even seen a paycheck," he said.

At the official opening and news conference yesterday, Ralph Reed was the new employee who stepped in front of a microphone to say a few words.

"The blessing is, when I came into this job, I came into a family atmosphere," said Reed - 44 years old, with about 30 of them spent in juvenile and adult institutions, mostly for drug-related offenses. "I've been in every jail in the state," said Reed, wearing a blue jump suit and stocking hat that marked him among Baltimore Truck Wash's first hires. "I am very grateful to Matt, Larry, Sean and John ... for giving me this chance, for embracing the ex-felons and others who have other problems, giving us a chance to change our lives, change our path. You don't think you're ever gonna be embraced. I am very grateful for this opportunity."

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

Men and women with criminal records may obtain information about re-entry programs and jobs by contacting Dan Rodricks at 410-332-6166 or at dan.rodricks @baltsun.com. Hear Rodricks Tuesday and Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., on "The Buzz" on WBAL Radio (1090 AM).

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