July 6, 2016
Nearly 23 years after being convicted of a felony, Antonio Jackson is getting a fresh start thanks to a strong family support system and the team from Living Classrooms’ Project SERVE. When entering prison at 24 years old, Jackson had little in the way of formal education or job skills, a status that remained largely unchanged upon his release in December 2015 at the age of 47. While support from his family provided a roof over his head and encouragement to get his life back on track, Jackson’s employment prospects were far less encouraging.
It wasn’t until he heard about Project SERVE from a friend who had recently participated in the program, that Jackson began on a path that would spark new hope for achieving his dream of one day owning his own business. Project SERVE (Service, Empowerment, Revitalization, Volunteerism, Employment) provides paid on-the-job training to unemployed and disadvantaged adults, many of whom are returning ex-offenders, while revitalizing Baltimore neighborhoods.
Jackson spent 4 months in the program, working alongside a crew on community revitalization projects while learning marketable work skills, professionalism, problem-solving, and social-skills training. When participants exit the program they transition into employment where they receive job retention support and aftercare from a Living Classrooms case manager for three years. SERVE members are also counseled in futhering their education, and are provided with GED tutoring or referrals to other educational options.
Jackson developed a strong work ethic while working in the prison’s kitchen which earned him some recognition from his peers and supervisors during his time in SERVE. Upon his completion of the program he was offered a permanent full-time position within the Living Classrooms’ program as a crew leader for a new contract to maintain the grounds of Fort McHenry. “I never thought I would use the lessons Living Classrooms was teaching me. I didn’t realize how important work ethic was at a job until I started this one,” he said.
Now managing his second crew of Project SERVE members, some might say Jackson is a born leader, often dispensing advice to his peers and encouraging them to continually strive for improvement. He notes that he is not alone in being considered a success story, and frequently works alongside so many others that have walked a similar path.
“Boys, if they don’t have someone to emulate, they don’t know how to become a man. So that’s why I always try to carry myself as a man,” said Jackson. “When I look at these great men that I work with at Living Classrooms, I take something from each one of them every day to make me an even better man,” he said.
When speaking about his job with Living Classrooms, it’s the people and positive environment they create that he refers to most often. Commenting on the lessons he takes from each of the staff members who work at the Adult Resource Cnter (the headquarters for Living Classrooms’ workforce development department) it’s clear that his brief experience has already made a big impact on him. “Living Classrooms gave me a sense of integrity, respect, motivation, they gave me a sense of belonging,” said Jackson. “There’s no you at Living Classrooms, it’s a team,” he said.
As Jackson continues to find his way in a city that has changed considerably since he left it in 1993, he leans on his family for support. He is very adamant that without a strong support system, most men in his situation would not be successful. And while returning to a strong family unit is beneficial, it too is not without hardships–a sentiment Jackson believes most in his situation can attest to. While still learning about who he is as a man and free citizen, Jackson is struggling with reconciling the perception his mother and siblings have of him as the young kid who left them so many years ago. In struggling to build and re-build these relationships, Jackson must also learn what it means to be a father to his two children, now young adults themselves.
In a situation where the best advice is often to take it one day at a time, Antonio Jackson is planning for the future. A self-proclaimed entrepreneur, Jackson is already making plans to one day own his own trucking company. On a path that will surely benefit from his leadership skills, he knows that a venture like this one may not have been possible without the skills he developed in Project SERVE.
Project SERVE is an important asset to the development and preservation of Baltimore City. The Walmart Foundation recently awarded a $75,000 grant to the program to support its efforts to revitalize communities and create stronger families and a greater workforce by creating opportunity in a demographic where second chances are not typically possible.