Maurice Person, 28, of North Lawndale, had been bouncing around from one temporary job to another and exhausted from "a thousand" fruitless interviews when an old friend recommended on Facebook that he look up an organization called Cara.
Founded in 1991 by entrepreneur and philanthropist Tom Owens, the organization offers job training and employment to people who, like Person, traditional employers may consider untouchable.
Person had been to state prison for 10 months in 2013. He has three felonies on his record, all of them drug-related, he said, matter-of-factly, when asked about his background last week.
"I haven't seen a jail since then," Person said, with a not insignificant measure of pride that was tinged with a steely resolve. And he has no plans of going back anytime soon. That much he didn't have to say, because it was communicated in the tone and tenor of his voice. Person is married and has three children.
The West Side native wore a bright green t-shirt, a gray vest and a gray hat, both bearing the name Cleanslate — one of Cara's many subsidiary programs.
During a press conference on May 17 held on the steps of Austin Town Hall, 5601 W. Lake St., Cara announced that it was expanding Cleanslate's Ward by Ward initiative by establishing a cleanup crew assigned to the 29th Ward. The first Ward by Ward crew launched this past August in the 27th Ward through sponsorships from a variety of organizations, including The Habitat Company.
The crew in Austin was the result of more than $300,000 in private donations from a group of philanthropists. The money, stretched over a 3-year period, should help Cleanslate pay for 60 crew jobs, the organization's officials said during last Thursday's press conference.
The premise of Cleanslate is simple. Offer minimum wage jobs cleaning up troubled neighborhoods to some of the least employable people in the city — most of them from the very neighborhoods they'll be working on — so that they can at least gain some employment history.
The ultimate goal, Cleanslate officials said, is to help them find employment in higher-paying, more permanent jobs. Person said that within three years he envisions himself getting a salary and good benefits in the construction or janitorial sectors.
"This was something that I saw that really impacts people," said 29th Ward Ald. Chris Taliaferro on Thursday.
"It's not just about getting them a job," he said. "Cara teaches. It's so easy to get a job in many cases, but sometimes it's hard to keep a job or to move to a better opportunity. I thank you for looking at folks that some folks won't even look at twice and making sure they're able to provide for their families."
Taliaferro said that he was prompted to start thinking about how to "change the narrative" on the West Side after driving on Central Avenue and seeing someone in a car in front of his vehicle throw trash onto the street.
According to Cleanslate's managing director, Brady Gott, the alderman met with Cara officials about possibly setting down roots in Austin roughly a month ago.
Gott said he plans to work with area nonprofits, such as Austin Coming Together, to help recruit West Side residents for Cleanslate.
Kristi McKenzie, a recruitment specialist, said that individuals can call Cara's admissions office and "within a day or two" a specialist will follow-up.
"We'll ask a few questions over the phone to make sure the person is eligible," McKenzie said. "The person needs to have a stable place to live, even if it's a shelter, and needs to be able to pass a drug test. They can't have extremely violent convictions or anything sexual, but drug charges, misdemeanors — those are acceptable."
Sam Lovett, 58, and a crew chief with Cleanslate, said that his crew will be in the 29th Ward three days a week cleaning sidewalks, removing graffiti, landscaping, power washing and similar beautification tasks.
Lovett said that he was released from prison last year and has been with Cleanslate since July. He was incarcerated for wire fraud, forgeries and other white-collar crimes.
"I was apprehensive about where I was going to get a job and a friend of mine, who was a crew chief also, told me about this," Lovett said. "I started as an intern and they saw something in me and promoted me."
In a statement, Mark Toriski, Cara's marketing and communications manager, said that since it's founding in 2005, Cleanslate has "cleaned up more than 850,000 trash bags and more than 275,000 bags of recycling in 33 Chicago neighborhoods and suburban communities."
Toriski said that Cleanslate has created more than 2,700 traditional jobs, with 986 participants "securing permanent or long-term employment through their involvement with the social enterprise."
Lovett, reinforcing Taliaferro's point, said that his time with Cara has been deeper than a paycheck.
"Besides being a supervisor I also mentor a lot of the workers," he said. "I enjoy that. The other work I did I was a little more selfish. It was just about me. I enjoy helping young, black men. The odds are against them, but I'm proof that you can turn your life."
For more info on Cleanslate's Ward by Ward initiative, visit cleanslatechicago.org or call (312) 226-6361.
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