TWO WEEKS AGO, Joe Bell was begging for a job - literally begging.
As an ex-offender, he found doors slammed in his face when he applied for jobs. He was shunned by society, and his failure to find work eroded his dignity.
Today, Joe is standing tall. In a few days he starts an orientation and training program at Mainstay Community Services that will lead to full-time employment next week.
The high-school dropout from West Philly did time over the years for car theft and burglary - nonviolent crimes, but dumb. He was a guest of the state for 10 of his 46 years and now understands, and regrets, how much of his life he burned.
"From the first choice to every choice I've made up until today, I've made them knowingly," Joe says. "My mother taught me right from wrong. It wasn't peer pressure. It was not circumstances. It was all me."
He's paid a stiff price for his criminal choices, as do other offenders who have seen the light but can't escape the tunnel of unemployment because most employers are understandably leery about hiring ex-cons.
Since December, Joe had been turned down for 60 jobs. That unhappy string broke a few days after I wrote about him last Monday.
Credit for his fresh start goes to those who reached out to help a man who had found maturity, responsibility and the desire to take care of his 3-year-old son, Sebastian.
Of several job offers, Joe selected one to become a therapeutic residential specialist for $11.50 an hour. It's not a lot, but it means a lot because it's honest work.
Having a job "gives me a feeling of self-worth," Joe says. "It puts me in a position to be able to tell my son you work for a living and you are able to take care of what you need to take care of and not be dependent on someone else."
At Mainstay, director Leanne Robert says she didn't give Joe the usual lengthy interview because of how I had described him in print. That was flattering.
After orientation and training, she says, Joe will be providing one-to-one supervision of clients, mostly people with intellectual disabilities.
Joe seems "genuine and wanting to make a difference in other folks' lives as well as his own," Robert says.
She brings special insight to the hurdles faced by ex-offenders: Before she returned to Temple to earn a master's degree in social work, Robert was a Philadelphia probation officer.
She knows that when denied legitimate work, offenders are pushed back toward crime. That's not really hard to understand, but to many, sadly, it is.
After I told Joe's story, I heard from several ex-offenders and potential employers.
The most inspirational employer was Robert Parrish, vice president of operations at Perry Products Corp. in Mount Laurel.
The company manufactures heat exchangers for oil refineries and has two ex-offenders among its 27 employees.
Perry hires machinists, welders, fitters and general laborers and offers on-the-job training so staffers can move up from jobs that pay $13.50 an hour to as much as $27.
Ex-offenders are no more trouble than employees with clean records, and "we do take on the hard-luck cases," Parrish says.
The company-founding "Epstein family were immigrants from Russia over 80 years ago. America gave them a second chance," and they decided to give other people a second chance, says Parrish.
Simple in principle, caring in practice.
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