Jeffrey Perry says the soles of his Nike Jordan sneakers were in much better shape before he pounded the pavement looking for work when he was released from prison in August.
But employers wouldn’t touch him after he served an 18-year sentence in several prisons throughout the state, he says.
“I struggled,” he says. “Wore these shoes down.”
The 55-year-old was given a new start when Stacey Kennedy, a city social services department worker, connected him with Bridging the Gap One Human at a Time. The program was started by Richmond police officer Rey Perez, and focuses on providing advice about soft skills needed to land and keep a job. Perez also works to connect the program’s 14 participants with local employers.
The class meets in the management office at the Mosby Court public housing complex. The location is convenient for many of the people who seek the help of Perez because they live not only in Mosby, but also in the surrounding public housing communities of Fairfield and Hillside courts and in Church Hill.
Perez was able to find a job for Perry with Safelink wireless, a government sponsored program that provides cell phones to low-income individuals. He started work a week ago, but says that he's sticking with the six-week course until it ends in December. He wants to pick up any useful skills he can.
“I cried, I was overwhelmed,” Perry says about the day he got the job. “No one else would reach out and help.”
He says that working with Perez – known by his students to be real, accessible and funny – changed his view of police officers.
“They convicted me, I was incarcerated. Living in an urban community, of course you have this thing about police officers,” he says. “Now I understand that they’re human. They’re people like us.”
Perez, a New York City native with eight years on the force, knew there was a problem when he kept placing the same people in cuffs over and over again.
“I just didn’t get it,” he says. “I just didn’t want to book them. I had to know what was going on.”
That’s when he decided to ask an inmate what kept landing him behind bars, and was told that filling out dozens of applications often gets these men and women nowhere.
“They have no choice but to be on the corner,” he says. “They have to take care of their kids.”
Perez promised to help the man find a job if he focused on getting his life back on track.
“His eyes lit up and they got real big,” he says.
Perez wanted to do more and began finding work for former inmates on an individual basis, but decided he could do more with a class. That’s when Bridging the Gap began.
Perez says that the class is open to anyone trying to get back on their feet, not just former inmates. The officer brought together volunteers in the fields of customer service, law, social work, business and other disciplines to teach the classes alongside him. The group of mostly men learns to not let nerves get the best of them in interviews and how to polish those resumes and dress for the job. Perez also plans to hold an anger management class tailored to graduates who may deal with irate customers in service settings.
Perez takes no overtime or other payments to hold the class twice a week, for two hours.
“I really believe my payment is blessings,” he says “I can’t explain the feeling it is when I get the call to say ‘I have the job.’”
Perez is also seeking to partner with more businesses to find job placements for his students and plans to raise money to buy a bus to take them to work. He says anyone interested in helping may call 610-751-5243.