Battle Creek Enquirer

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (AP) _ Walt Whitfield said a criminal background can pin a man into “a very small box” when it comes to the job hunt, but he hopes his new program can stretch those barriers.

Whitfield is the main organizer behind a partnership between Community Fatherhood and New Level Sports that aims to give job skills to those with a past that might be distasteful to employers, according to the Battle Creek Enquirer .

Participants in the program will learn either hospitality skills through a catering program or manufacturing and other skills through a screen-printing and embroidery business. The organizations hope to pilot the program in late May with eight men and expand to 16 men by August, Whitfield said.

Whitfield and other organizers said the program is open to anyone in need of new skills, including young men whose lack of job experience might be a barrier. But the program is geared toward fathers whose criminal backgrounds have made it hard to find a job.

That remains an issue: A survey released last month by Cleveland firm EmployeeScreenIQ found 88 percent of employers disqualify applicants who have felony convictions for violence, 82 percent disqualify applicants for felony convictions related to theft or dishonesty, and 68 percent disqualify applicants for felony drug convictions.

Sometimes even small infractions can cause a problem _ 13 percent of employers said even traffic offenses disqualify applicants _ and any time served behind bars creates a gap in their work history.

“I had no idea how big a problem this was,” Whitfield said, adding persons of color are disproportionately impacted. “(But) we’re in the business of giving hope.”

It’s an idea that’s been a year in the making, he said.

Whitfield works at Community Fatherhood, which offers parenting classes largely to men court-ordered into the program. There, Whitfield said he heard from more and more men who needed help finding a job because their jail time was a liability.

“These men are fathers,” Whitfield said, “and when you deny these men a chance, you’re unintentionally denying their children, as well . If he’s done his time, he shouldn’t be sentenced to poverty forever.”

So Whitfield and Sean Kennedy, a fatherhood worker at Community Fatherhood, reached out to New Level Sports. That organization, a nonprofit that primarily works with youth in afterschool programs, already had a licensed kitchen on-site. And Whitfield, a former manager at Clara’s on the River, saw an opportunity.

New Level also had Tucker DeCuypere, a 20-year-old Kalamazoo man who attends Faith Assembly Christian Fellowship, the church associated with New Level. He also was a screen-printer, and the church had already asked him to set up a screen-printing business to help generate revenue for the church.

The organizations partnered to bring men in to both train and work in those programs.

Most men will learn cooking, serving, busing and dishwashing skills in the catering program and will gain experience working events catered by the program.

Those “with real fire and interest” will learn the higher-level screen-printing skills, Whitfield said. Men will gain experience in manufacturing a product and in creative skills, and possibly sales experience as participants who show initiative could be asked to help New Level grow the screen-printing business. Men will help fill orders for the business.

“It’s going to give them an opportunity to have that reference, someone the employer can call,” DeCuypere said. “That gap in their resume is going to be filled.”

Participants also will learn soft skills such as how to interview and will be asked to participate in a men’s group at New Level, because “we want to deal with the man as a whole,” Kennedy said.

Whitfield said participants would receive a $25-a-week stipend for participating in the program, along with gas or bus cards to help them make it to the training.

The organizers are currently seeking grants to get the program up and running, but hope revenue from the businesses would eventually make it self-sufficient. They’re looking for customers for both the catering service and screen-printing.

“We can for sure match and beat prices,” Whitfield said, “and you get to help somebody out in the process.”