By Joe Tash
They come from all walks of life, from a convict who spent more than 30 years in prison, to an 18-year-old girl who had never been in trouble, to a man whose three children are in foster care. What they share is a common desire to get a job and live with dignity.
They are the clients of Second Chance, a San Diego nonprofit that has helped nearly 4,000 people get back to work since it was founded in 1993.
“We get them ready, equipped, excited, passionate about getting back into the workforce again,” said Robert Coleman, executive director of Second Chance. “They come to Second Chance with hope, that they want to be different. They’re not sure how to get there, but they know in their hearts they want it.”
This year, an eight-part documentary series about Second Chance, called “Get to Work,” aired on the Sundance Channel. The premier episode of the series will be shown at a special screening at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 18, at The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe at an event co-sponsored by the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation and Second Chance. The event is free, but reservations are required.
Staff and clients featured in the episode will be on hand, and introductory remarks will be made by San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, a Second Chance board member.
To make a reservation, call Maureen Polimadei at 619-839-0953.
Debbie Anderson, programs manager for the Foundation, said the purpose of the event is “to raise awareness of the programs at Second Chance. If people are inclined to support the program, that would be wonderful, too.”
In 2011, the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation awarded two grants to Second Chance: $20,000 to its Urban Garden Project, part of a program that supports at-risk youth; and $10,000 for a program that assists homeless veterans in finding jobs and other resources, Anderson said.
The Sundance Channel series came about when producers began looking at STRIVE, a program based in Harlem, New York, that provides basic training in how to get a job, from the proper attitude and appearance to interview and resume-writing skills.
Second Chance uses the STRIVE model in its four-week training course, and Sundance producers visited San Diego to see how the program worked. Sundance executive Marco Bresaz said he and his colleagues were impressed by the Second Chance program, and also saw an opportunity to show a different side to the story of Americans trying to break out of homelessness, drug addiction and other problems to get jobs and put their lives back on track.
San Diego, he said, was a sort of “paradise lost. Even in a city as physically beautiful as San Diego, people are struggling.”
One of the things that gets driven home by the documentary, said Bresaz, is the commonality between the audience and those who are in the program.
“As I saw people come through, I felt lucky, they weren’t all that different from me,” he said.
The skills needed to thrive in the business world are alien to many of the Second Chance clients, Bresaz said. He recalled one young man who came in late to a session and was told that if he wanted to stay, he had to smile. At first, the youth, who had grown up in a gang-infested neighborhood, resisted.
In the youth’s world, Bresaz said, “a smile is a weakness, a smile will get your butt kicked.” But finally, he relented and had a breakthrough, realizing there was a different way to relate to the people around him.
Students are taught that first impressions are critical, and are even instructed on how to shake hands.
The program is transformative not only for the individuals in the class, but their familes, Bresaz said, because the students can become better role models for their children and other relatives.
“From what I saw, I would say that what they do is amazing, and it’s incredibly critical, especially at this time. I wish there were more programs like this available to people because it works,” Bresaz said.
In the coming months, Bresaz said, Sundance will decide whether to continue the series next year.
Although the first run of the series has concluded, the episodes are available on I-Tunes.
Coleman, the Second Chance executive director, said the program is open to anyone who wants to get a fresh start in life by getting a job. Along with teaching job-seeking and behavioral skills, the program supports its students in a number of ways, such as housing, referrals to mental health services and business clothing.
Students must be clean and sober, and willing to undergo random drug testing, he said, and be motivated to get back to work. Many of the students have been in jail or had other issues in their lives that prevented them from holding a steady job.
“We try to remove all of the reasons and excuses. So now it comes down to you. How badly do you want a job?” Coleman said.