ST. PETERSBURG – Ex-offenders in the St. Petersburg area are getting a new lease on life with the opening of a new center that holds the promise of matching those released from jail with potential employers.
Last Thurs., Feb. 5, Mayor Rick Kriseman, along with Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, formally welcomed the Pinellas Ex-offender Reentry Coalition (PERC) to Midtown. With its new office opening this week on the 16th Street corridor, the local community is excited to see a positive place where ex-offenders can find help.
“Everyone in the city deserves the same opportunities,” said Mayor Kriseman who believes that all citizens should be allowed to hold a job and be paid a living wage. The crowd cheered as Kriseman stated that everyone should be granted the right “to have a second chance.”
PERC, in conjunction with the 2020 Plan organizers and the Pinellas County Urban League, will assist ex-offenders who have paid their debt to society in finding employment in the area, as well as, train them in order to help facilitate a smooth transition and successful reentry into the community.
The building that used to bear the name of Welch Tax Services & Accounting since 1966 and was also known as “the black city hall,” was rechristened the Dr. David T. Welch Center for Progress and Community Development last Thursday.
Dr. Welch was among the first to integrate that section of 16th Street, where African Americans were for years forbidden to live or have businesses south of 15th Avenue South. He was known for his enormous heart and for his work with those in need. The building where he helped so many people is now dedicated to making a difference in the lives of ex-offenders. His legacy lives on.
When you walk through the doors at 1601, you will find a facility ready to serve a greater purpose providing a chance for redemption for those who have made some mistakes in life.
“That’s what dad believed in and that’s what he lived,” said County Commissioner Ken Welch. He remembers a time when the building was full of visiting mayors, police chiefs and persons in the faith-based world. But in most cases, he recalls his father working with ex-offenders.
“A lot of those guys weren’t polished, some had rough edges,” said Welch who became emotional when reminiscing about his father. “But you know dad treated them all like human beings.”
PERC Executive Director Michael Jalazo stood in the community garden at the north end of the property and welcomed the enormous crowd to the ribbon cutting and only had positive words about the road ahead. He thanked all those involved in making the dream of rehabilitation a reality and touted the benefits of hiring someone looking to turn their life around.
“The mission is to help the offender to become and remain an ex-offender,” Jalazo said. He listed tax credits, on the job training, and federal bonding – all things that help a business owner in the running of their business.
The idea behind the program is to make a tax-paying citizen out of everyone who is released from prison. By reuniting them with their family and friends, as well as, encouraging ex-offenders to give back to their community, instead of taking resources from it, Jalazo hopes that attitudes will change when it comes to how the public views those in need of a second chance.
“Successful re-entry of those coming back to our city from prison is not only good policy, but its increasing public safety and decreasing cost in the criminal justice system,” said Jalazo. More than two years ago, he and State Representative Darryl Rouson started discussing the idea of job reform and became dedicated to increasing the boots on the ground to create more jobs in south St. Petersburg. “This isn’t rocket science,” he said.
Although the mission of rehabilitation and providing opportunities seems a simple goal for PERC, in reality getting employers to buy into the same ideal, at times, can pose a problem.
“PERC isn’t as simple as the goal,” said Jalazo. “It can be very challenging, very daunting.”
PERC also assists clients with resume preparation, completing employment applications and various interviewing skills. Those interested in the program are encouraged to check out exoffender.org for more information. Additional information can also be found on Twitter and Facebook under Pinellas Reentry.
Nikki Gaskin-Capehart served as the Mistress of Ceremonies.