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Ex-offenders get 2nd chance to forge a new life
Prison, companies partner in re-entry employment opportunities
Vickie Huff welds at the Lavonia-based Atlanta Rod & Manufacturing. Huff and other ex-offenders have received training and job help through Goodwill’s employment programs and other community partners.

With her freedom coming, Vickie Huff said she worried about her resume’s two-decade hole in employment history.

She was sentenced to 20 years in prison for an armed robbery in 1996.

“I thought it would be kind of a struggle with the employment gap and having a felony like that,” Huff said, who served her time at the Lee Arrendale Transitional Center. “A lot of people don’t like to give second chances.”

Huff said she thanked God for the opportunities at Goodwill’s employment program and her eventual employment at Lavonia-based Atlanta Rod & Manufacturing, a new start in welding she said she never imagined.

“My mom was really excited about it,” Huff said. “She said, ‘I can’t believe my daughter is welding.’”

Goodwill started its welding program for ex-offenders in January 2016. In this fiscal year so far, Goodwill has helped 65 former inmates find employment through its referral program.

“We provide them a 12-week training program specifically with Lanier Technical College as it relates to welding careers,” Goodwill Director of Public Relations Summer Dunham said. “The outcome here is to train production welders, which is a competitive field here in North Georgia.”

Goodwill partnered with the Department of Community Supervision as well as the pilot Re-entry Accountability Court Transition program at the Hall County Correctional Institution.

The three-phase program focusing on substance abuse counseling, education and job placement was started in March 2014 with Warden Walt Davis.

REACT participants have found work at car hauler manufacturer Cottrell in Gainesville as well as the King’s Hawaiian large-scale bakery in Oakwood.

Plant manager Rob Hathy said King’s Hawaiian has had two REACT participants since last summer. They have worked in the food safety, sanitation and maintenance areas of the plant.

“They’re coming into our organization potentially better-skilled, so utilizing a program that we can leverage in that regard has been beneficial,” he said.

One participant continues to work at the Oakwood plant, but the other was released from the prison and found work at a family business, Hathy said.

“It allows us to reach out into the community, and it gives us an opportunity to hire some other folks that might not necessarily have been available to us in the past,” he said.

Davis said the institution was recently awarded a $50,000 grant to build employment skills, including forklift certification. The warden also hopes to add a welding shop at the prison.

“We’ll actually be setting up welding stations just like they have at Lanier Tech and training the guys here at the CI before they actually go to the transitional center,” Davis said.

Beyond the 100 hours of shop time for those training to be a welder, Dunham said the participants also have 96 hours of soft skills training “to make sure they can get the job and then keep the job.”

The skills include learning how to work with a supervisor, professionalism and handling constructive criticism.

“When somebody has a record, that’s obviously a barrier to employment,” Dunham said.