Darlene Lewis helps people find jobs. Her non-profit, Lewis-Burnett Employment Finders, will help anyone who shows up, but since 1994, Lewis has been particularly focused on linking employers with parolees and ex-convicts.
"Helping others is just something I've always been good at," said Lewis, 59. Her office in the Willie Hinton Resource Center bursts with framed photos of her four kids, 19 grandkids and three great-grandkids. She even looks like a nurturer — no-fuss hairstyle, bright blouse and an easy grin.
Lewis-Burnett is a nonprofit in the purest sense. Sometimes it receives grant money, but usually it runs on donations and willpower. It's staffed by five full-time volunteers and a couple of part-time instructors. No one gets paid, and no one pays for services, which include employer referrals, basic computer classes, help with job applications, G.E.D. classes and legal aid.
"People with a felony background have such a hard time finding jobs. If it was a drug crime they can't even get food stamps," said Lewis. "You have fines and fees to pay, you have child support. People who can't find a job go back to crime, because that's what they know."
One of the agency's most important services is helping eligible convicts get their records sealed. "It's such a simple process, but many people don't know they can do it. You don't need an attorney, just a petition to seal. After that, you can say no on an application to having been convicted of a felony," Lewis said. Felons convicted of non-violent crimes can apply to have their records sealed after three years.
In 1984 Lewis was Parent Teacher Association president at the Little Rock Skills Center, a former vo-tech program associated with Central High. Her oldest son, Oliver, was a senior there. "I had all these ones at the Skill Center that barely knew how to read, but they were getting ready to graduate. I knew they had mechanical skills, but they didn't actually know how to get a job," she said. So she started teaching job-hunting skills in her living room and taking non-profit business classes at Arkansas Baptist College.
Later, Lewis ran a hotel and restaurant. She operated Lewis-Burnett, now a registered non-profit, from the hotel. For the past few years, following a long struggle with cancer, Lewis has been on disability. Often she pays agency expenses out of pocket.
"We've had different locations, different amounts of funding over these years," she said.
Lewis started working with former felons because of Oliver, who struggled with dyslexia. "All my other children did OK, but Oliver had problems coming through school. He didn't learn, so he ended up going to the streets." Oliver was incarcerated for 10 months for selling drugs.
"He got out in 1994, and we realized there weren't any jobs for him," Lewis said. Eventually Oliver found maintenance positions. Now 44, he's in college, studying business at Pulaski Tech.
Lewis-Burnett sees between 40 and 55 clients a week. In 2010 the non-profit found jobs for 839 clients, 676 of whom had convictions. Of those clients, 392 are still employed in those positions.
Clients are sent to the agency by parole officers, charities and for-profit staffing agencies. Many times they come by word of mouth. There's a one-on-one intake session, at which a staff member familiarizes himself with the client's skills and interests and other issues that person may be facing.
"One thing we run into a lot is rape in prison. And there's funding to assist people with counseling, but they don't know about it," said Leta Anthony, Lewis-Burnett program director, political activist and a retired human resources director for Southwestern Bell.
According to Anthony, small businesses are more willing to hire their clients than big corporations. "Maybe they need the tax break more," she said. Businesses that hire convicted felons get between $2,400 and $8,400 in tax credits.
Lewis-Burnett finds it most challenging to place sex offenders. "But we have done it," Lewis said.
The agency has successfully placed clients at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Walmart and Fed Ex, as well as in hotel, factory and government jobs. "We have to match the job with the conviction," Anthony said. "If the conviction is theft, they won't be hired to work a cash register." But according to Lewis, no employer has ever reported a negative experience with a Lewis-Burnett client.
Tommy Mooney, a full-time volunteer, is a former client. He credits Lewis-Burnett for reuniting him with his wife. "We divorced, but after I got out and started working here, we got remarried," he said. With Lewis-Burnett's help, Mooney started his own personal credit repair business. But he appreciated the agency so much that, when they realized his wife could cover the bills, he began serving as full-time CFO of Lewis-Burnett.
"I'm not a normal CFO. I do intake, I talk to clients, sometimes I call employers," he said. "I tell our clients about my experience, and try to keep them from getting discouraged. When you're in this situation, a lot of doors are going to shut before one opens."
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