I receive more calls about the difficulties ex-offenders encounter when they are looking for work than any other issue.
Even before these trying economic times, many employers tossed the applications of ex-offenders to the side. Paying their dues to society didn't seem to end with the fulfillment of their sentences.
Saburah Dixon, 53, of Lexington could write a book about that.
Dixon was arrested four times on drug charges and spent 10 years and four months in federal prison for dealing dope.
"I started selling drugs when I was 22," she said. "The usage didn't start until I was 30."
Crack cocaine, heroin, whatever. She dealt it. "Then I wanted to see why these people were coming and bothering me to buy drugs," said Dixon, explaining why she started using her inventory. "Curiosity kills the cat."
At 39, she was an inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn. It was there she realized she needed to make changes to her life.
She enrolled in one-on-one counseling, a drug program and GED and business management classes.
"It was a blessing," Dixon says now, looking back. "It was good for me. I refused to bring out the baggage that I went in with."
Five years ago she was released to a halfway house in Lexington. Her orders were to get a job or return to prison. She didn't realize how difficult that would be.
It brought on an anxiety attack. "I was boo-hooing. Big bad me. I was a wreck," she said.
Lexington had changed and she didn't have a clue how to traverse the employment landscape that wasn't offering second chances. Plus, she returned as a practicing Muslim and faced some repercussions for that.
"I vowed to get something going on to help people avoid what I've been through," Dixon said.
That time came in January 2011 when the SHARE Center at Georgetown and Ash streets opened — former home of the Masjid Bilal Muslim worship center — and she was named executive director.
SHARE, an acronym for Services for Human Advancement and Resource Enhancement, offers programs for the public and for ex-offenders who are trying to regain their footing.
Programs include food and clothing banks, a computer room and classes, GED classes and employment services. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings are also held there.
And a re-entry program for ex-offenders offers help with résumé writing, job leads and appropriate clothing for interviews.
Dixon calls potential employers, asking about their policy on hiring ex-offenders so that she doesn't send clients on wild goose chases, she said. About 500 men and women have found jobs since the center opened.
"Last month we found jobs for 19 or 20," she said. "We have good months and bad months."
Getting jobs for ex-offenders is SHARE's main goal. It's up to the new employee to keep the job.
"If they want to go back to drugs, that is on them," she said.
SHARE will be hosting a job fair on Thursday for anyone seeking work. About 10 companies have signed on, she said. The fair was the brainchild of Eugenia Howard, an ex-offender and former addict who has been drug-free for eight years. "We have had doors shut in our faces and it is time for this to stop," said Howard, who is a student studying behavioral science. "Give us a chance. Let us prove we are rehabilitated, that we can start over."
So far, she said, the companies that are coming are willing to do just that.
Applicants should come properly dressed and with résumés. The job fair will also offer applications for GED classes, other employment services and workshops that are available at the center.
"We are a resource center," Dixon said. "We help any and everybody, but my target is ex-offenders because I am an ex-offender."