Growing up near the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Ron Tonn gained an abiding appreciation during his formative years for the struggles faced by former inmates as they re-entered society after their incarceration.
That appreciation eventually led the Purdue University alumnus to a career committed to assisting ex-offenders in overcoming the critical hurdles they face when they have served their terms of imprisonment. Currently, Tonn pursues his commitment as the Chief Program Officer of the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN). That distinction also places him and the 11-year-old West Side nonprofit workforce development agency at the forefront of funding in Chicago’s apportionment of the recently announced statewide Urban Weatherization Initiative.
Focusing on assisting unemployed jobseekers in North Lawndale and surrounding neighborhoods initially, Tonn said NLEN’s current level of support for ex-offenders simply reflect the reality of conditions on the ground. NLEN’s statistics reveal more than 56 percent of its clientele in North Lawndale has had prior connection to the criminal justice system.
“They didn’t set out to specifically serve ex-offenders” Tonn said at the organization’s West Side offices April 10. “What happened is that when they opened the doors, that is who showed up. It’s a huge, huge impact, and it’s just gotten worse over time as more barriers in the private sector of employment have sprung up, making it harder and harder for them to get through the door.”
Tonn said the $325, 407 in funding NLEN has been awarded in the $1.3 million UWI program represents a “unique opportunity” to expand the core of the agency’s three-pronged approach to its mission. The agency’s programs aim at facilitating the job acquisition, retention and stabilization prospects of its clients. And as the 21st Century economy increasingly relies on a green model, training and jobs financed by UWI dollars become even more significant investments in stable and productive futures in one of the city’s most distressed communities.
Contracts with other training partners have been signed and NLEN is pressing forward to begin its first course in June, Tonn said. A small Chicago business consulting firm, Utilivate Technologies LLC, will provide the training program templates for the course, while orientation services will be provided by the Etiquette Foundation of Illinois. West Side nonprofit Fathers Who Care at 4540 W. Washington Blvd. will furnish and direct the program’s mentoring services.
“(The UWI program) is unique in that it is focused on providing specific vocational skills that will take more than job readiness services,” said Tonn. He added the training will facilitate more than stop-gap employment for clients because the green aspect of weatherization marks it “with potential for future growth” in the economy of the 21st century.
NLEN Chief Executive Officer and founder Brenda Palms Barber said the agency was “absolutely honored” to earn the funding that expands its ability to serve its ever growing clientele. “We worked really hard to bring this to our community so that we could out ahead of the curve.
“The green movement in energy is where the jobs of the future are, and that is what we are about, making sure our people who are unemployed or under-employed have the opportunity to participate in the economy of the future.”
Barber’s sentiments were echoed by the network’s Workforce Development Coach and UWI program manager Felicia Griffin. “My expectation is for the program to enjoy a great success and be another shining star in the branch tree of the North Lawndale Employment Network,” said Griffin.
Based out of a resource center housed in a small, nondescript fenced-in two-flat with beehives in the back yard at 3726 W. Flournoy St., in North Lawndale, NLEN spearheads its attempts to combat joblessness and barriers to employment for ex-offenders with a 4-week training and job hunting assistance program dubbed U-Turn Permitted. Run in an 11-class yearly cycle, the program assists clients with job searching, anger management counseling, conflict resolution and work culture adaptation.
U-Turn Permitted is subsequently a feeder program to NLEN’s transitional job strategy services in which the agency subsidize a three-month, no-risk observation employment period for clients. These placements may lead to permanent jobs as they serve the purpose of acclimating participants to the patterns and rhythms of a work schedule.
The transitional aspect of the agency’s services also includes the operations of its Sweet Beginnings honey manufacturing, packaging and distribution small business. Six years into the making, the wholly-owned subsidiary nonprofit employs between 8-10 people at a time, permitting them to establish or re-establish work routines following a 90-day training period.
Motivated by a sense of fairness throughout a career devoted to ex-offender re-entry services that began in 1976, after he achieved degrees in sociology and psychology, Tonn said NLEN is striving toward a sustainable model that builds upon “so many cases of success” with former clients. He cites productive relationships a diverse array of business partners, including the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and Regal Waste Management in placing clients in long term jobs. Those and many others are relationships Tonn would like to see expanded throughout the business sector in Chicago.
“Screening ex-cons out actually does a disservice to their mission,” he said of companies that summarily reject candidates with a background. “Oftentimes, they can be missing out on potentially the best person for the job.”