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BJ Gebhart, an employee at Little O’s Old Time Soda Fountain in St. Charles, was a participant in the Saint Louis University Transformative Workforce Academy, which connects employers with people who were formerly in prison.
BJ Gebhart, an employee at Little O’s Old Time Soda Fountain in St. Charles, was a participant in the Saint Louis University Transformative Workforce Academy, which connects employers with people who were formerly in prison.
Photo Credit: Sid Hastings for the St. Louis Review

SLU’s Transformative Workforce Academy seeks to connect formerly incarcerated people, businesses in effort to create meaningful job opportunities

Saint Louis University’s Transformative Workforce Academy links former prisoners with area businesses to create meaningful employment opportunities

Early on a Tuesday morning, BJ Gebhart and Jackie Huebbe were already into the rhythm of the workday, preparing cookies for a couple of wholesale orders that needed to be delivered that day.

Gebhart has been working for Huebbe, owner of SugarBot Sweet Shop and Little O’s Old Time Soda Fountain in St. Charles since last May, moving into a full-time position in November. He finds the work fulfilling, especially in his other role as a soda jerk at Little O’s.

BJ Gebhart prepared cookie dough for baking while working on a wholesale order at SugarBot Sweet Shop in St. Charles Jan. 11. Gebhart works at the bakery and at the retail store Little O’s Old Time Soda Fountain through a connection with the Saint Louis University Transformative Workforce Academy.
Photo Credits: Sid Hastings for the St. Louis Review
“I really like the customer service aspect,” he said. “Seeing their reaction when they like something. Seeing the kids and their smiles — they just light up and it warms your heart.”

Gebhart and Huebbe made a connection through Saint Louis University’s Transformative Workforce Academy, which helps individuals coming out of prison find and retain meaningful employment. Gebhart, 54, was released from prison in June 2020 after serving 36 years. Initially, he found employment at a factory through the Criminal Justice Ministry but then learned about the opportunity to work with Huebbe.

As Huebbe was growing her business in St. Charles, she was becoming more familiar with organizations that work with at-risk populations, including individuals who are unhoused, have specific mental health needs or have been incarcerated. She and her husband and business partner, Mark, decided they wanted to do something to help provide meaningful employment opportunities.

“You think about being in a position because of a decision that you made when you were clearly a different person,” Huebbe said. “I’d hate for people to judge me based on decisions that I made when I was in my 20s. And sometimes for people, those decisions are only a few steps away from being in a life-altering situation.”

Shrinking recidivism

The Transformative Workforce Academy grew out of a Second Chance Job Fair, held in 2018 at Chaifetz Arena in partnership with federal and state probation and parole officers. The following year, the job fair attracted 1,000 attendees, including 77 employers who committed to looking at candidates beyond just their criminal record.

Since then, the effort has gone year-round. The program works with candidates to connect them with needed resources and address any barriers to employment, including legal assistance, education, mental health care and more. In addition to parole and probation officers, the program has relationships with shelters and other community programs that work with people who have criminal records.

BJ Gebhart cleaned while working at the store in St. Charles. Gebhart said he finds the work fulfilling, especially in his other role as a soda jerk. “I really like the customer service aspect,” he said.
Photo Credits: Sid Hastings for the St. Louis Review
Seven in 10 incarcerated people released in 34 states in 2012 were re-arrested within five years, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report on recidivism rates for prisoners in 34 states between 2012 and 2017. A report from the Harvard Political Review notes that the U.S. has one of the highest recidivism rates, with 76.6% of prisoners re-arrested within five years.

“In many cases, that’s very preventable,” said Lisa Cohn, coordinator of the Transformative Workforce Academy. “Research shows that the sooner you can get someone a job after they have left prison, the more likely they are to not go back.” In some places, the recidivism rate sharply drops to within the single digits when employment is obtained within the first year, she added.

“That really shows when you give people opportunities to not commit a crime, and you give them a legal way to provide for their families, then they don’t go back to committing crimes again,” she said. “They want to have hope and a sense of belonging and purpose in the community, and employment can provide all of those.”

Since the initial job fair in 2018, the program has helped 120 people find jobs with employment partners. An additional 150 people have received help with resumes and other resources in seeking employment.

Some might already have a case manager they’re working with and a resume, making the process fairly quick, Cohn said. The program also has volunteer job coaches who work with those who are starting at square one, she added.

The program partners with more than 100 area employers in industries including hospitality, construction, administration, customer service, transportation, manufacturing and custodial services. Training also is provided to employers to prepare them with an understanding of the challenges faced by those who have been incarcerated.

“We want to help them create an environment that will help them grow,” Cohn said.

Watching employees flourish

Jackie Huebbe, owner of SugarBot Sweet Shop and Little O’s Old Time Soda Fountain, became familiar with the Transformative Workforce Academy because of her participation in the Vision St. Charles County Leadership Program, which gives business professionals educational leadership experiences and opportunities for community engagement.

Cohn at the Transformative Workforce Academy introduced Huebbe to Gebhart, and she discovered he was seeking stable work that also provided him with more human interaction. He started as a soda jerk at Little O’s and eventually created a full-time position combining that with duties at SugarBot. The Huebbes also are helping him find housing closer to work, so he can reduce his nearly 40-minute commute from his current residence in south St. Louis.

Huebbe said she’s enjoyed seeing Gebhart flourish in his role. “We see people really come out of their shell,” she said. “I say being a soda jerk is a lot like being a bartender for a child. We get a lot of compliments from people about BJ.”

BJ Gebhart, right, worked with SugarBot Sweet Shop owner Jackie Huebbe on a wholesale cookie order at SugarBot Sweet Shop in St. Charles Jan. 11. Gebhart works at the bakery and at the retail store Little O’s Old Time Soda Fountain, both businesses owned and run by Huebbe.
Photo Credits: Sid Hastings for the St. Louis Review
“I’m not a baker, per se, nor do I have experience in customer service — I never had any kind of hopes and dreams like that as a kid,” Gebhart said. “But now I experience both.”


>> Second Chance Job Fair

The Second Chance Job Fair originated with Saint Louis University’s Office of Mission and Identity. Jesuit Father Chris Collins, former assistant to the president for mission and identity, was engaging with federal and state probation and parole officers and offered space at SLU to host a job fair for people coming out of prison.

The next Second Chance Job Fair, sponsored by Centene in collaboration with SLU, will take place April 19. The virtual fair encourages participating employers to look beyond applicants’ criminal records as they seek meaningful employment.

Job-seekers film a two-minute video pitch for employers that includes their work-related skills and traits; past work experience, education, training or volunteer work; and ways in which the person has overcome adversity and how this translates into being a better employee.

For more information on the job fair, see second-chance-slu.web.app/job-fair.


>> Transformative Workforce Academy

Transformative Workforce Academy is part of a Saint Louis University interdepartmental collaboration that supports individuals at risk of incarceration in living fruitful, prison-free lives. The collaboration includes prevention, in-prison and re-entry services. Through research, information-sharing and direct services in areas including education, legal defense, life-skills training and employment placement, SLU seeks to address the root causes of crime by providing support and resources.

The program helps those who are coming out of prison find and retain meaningful employment. Expanding upon the success of several job fairs, the program now provides year-round support to job-seekers in need of second chance employment and employers looking to hire and retain a talented but often overlooked section of the workforce.

To learn more, contact program manager Lisa Cohn at [email protected] or (314) 977-5498.


>> Criminal Justice Ministry

The Criminal Justice Ministry’s mission is to improve communities by supporting and empowering people impacted by incarceration. Its re-entry housing programs provide yearlong supportive housing and wraparound services.

A volunteer network provides services to people who are currently incarcerated. Direct services provide items to address immediate needs for those who have been released from jail/prison. Another program helps housing clients learn business skills and create pet-friendly items to sell at local markets and fairs. And an advocacy program offers presentations to groups and contacts with legislators.

CJM receives funding from the Annual Catholic Appeal. For more information on the agency and its programs, visit www.cjmstlouis.org.


>> Restorative justice

The U.S. Bishops have consistently called for restorative justice. In Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, the bishops wrote, “Just as God never abandons us, so too we must be in covenant with one another. We are all sinners, and our response to sin and failure should not be abandonment and despair, but rather justice, contrition, reparation, and return or reintegration of all into the community.”

The bishops have repeatedly voiced support for legislation that would make improvements to the U.S. criminal justice system, including amending the federal criminal code to establish partnerships between prisons and faith- or community-based nonprofit organizations to conduct activities to reduce recidivism. The bishops also have voiced support for the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would make reforms to mandatory minimum sentences by expanding current judicial sentencing options related to nonviolent drug offenses.

It’s our duty to do everything possible to offer to those who commit crimes a way of redeeming themselves and making a positive return to society, St. John Paul II said in 2000.

“We are still a long way from the time when our conscience can be certain of having done everything possible to prevent crime and to control it effectively so that it no longer does harm and, at the same time, to offer to those who commit crimes a way of redeeming themselves and making a positive return to society,” he said. “If all those in some way involved in the problem tried to … develop this line of thought, perhaps humanity as a whole could take a great step forward in creating a more serene and peaceful society.”

Little O’s Old Time Soda Fountain employee BJ Gebhart, right, talked with customers Brady Latham, left, and Aly Puckett Jan. 8. Gebhart served 36 years in prison before being released and was connected with the soda fountain through Saint Louis University’s Transformative Workplace Academy.
Photo Credits: Sid Hastings for the St. Louis Review

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