Employer, ex-offender showing the way

The Baltimore Sun

Here's what I'm talking about: a guy helping a guy and helping his city. Here's the owner of a popular Baltimore restaurant hiring an ex-offender and, more than that, helping him negotiate the obstacles of life so he can stay on track and remain a productive citizen. That's what I'm talking about: making a difference in one man's life so that we might see a generational break in Baltimore's epoch of drug addiction and violence.

Before we go on, I need to go back to an idea floated in this space more than a year ago.

The idea was to have the owners of businesses, or the executives of companies, hire and take a personal interest in an unemployed ex-offender who passed muster at a job interview.

One man/one woman at a time.

Very simple.

By December 2005, I had attended too many forums and listened to too many advocates preach to the choir about the need for businesses in Maryland to hire men and women with criminal records, particularly those of a non-violent nature. Stop bouncing job candidates because the background check shows an arrest record, they said. Consider the person. Consider the opportunity. Consider the stakes.

All fine.

Except the people who needed to hear this message weren't in the room.

Nor was the mayor.

Nor was the governor.

But what we needed was someone in power - the mayor, the governor - to take the issue of ex-offender hiring to business leaders. They're the ones who need to hear the pitch - not the social workers, prosecutors, parole officials and cops who already know about this sleeping giant of a problem.

We have thousands of men and women coming out of our costly prisons every year, unprepared for life in free society and wholly susceptible to the forces that fuel the cycle of incarceration-release-unemployment-arrest that keeps the cell blocks full and our streets unsafe.

I've said this before: If one man or one woman hires and mentors one man or one woman - if the CEO takes a personal interest in the XO - we might get somewhere. With thousands of businesses in Maryland doing this, we might actually see serious social progress in this state. We might see Baltimore's unemployment rate drop along with the homicides. We might see more men and women feeling better about themselves and being responsible parents. We might see more kids cared for, and in school where they belong.

Here's what I'm talking about: Chris Hannan, owner of Bo Brooks, the crab house in Canton, and Woody Bowling. Bowling is 44 years old and three years in recovery from a decade of heroin addiction and incarceration. He used drugs, sold drugs.

During the past two years, his life changed for the better. Hired in 2005 to work in the Bo Brooks kitchen, he's now its manager.

And his boss, Hannan, wants to keep him in that job.

So yesterday, he and Bowling left work to pay a visit to a car dealership in Baltimore County.

Seems that last year, Bowling financed an $18,000 used Nissan Altima at a high interest rate, only to find in time that the car was, in Hannan's words, "a piece of junk." Brakes, engine problems, tires - Bowling had one problem after another, to the tune of $3,700 in repairs.

It was the first car he ever bought and an expensive disappointment.

But more than disappointing, the car is central to this story because it plays a big role in Woody Bowling's recovery. It allows him to live in Frederick County, about 50 miles from Baltimore, and keep his job at Bo Brooks.

Bowling moved to Frederick, with his baby and baby's mother, to get away from Baltimore and his former life. He wanted to start fresh. His baby's mother got a job in a Frederick nursing home. Things were going well.

But the car's engine failed again a few weeks ago.

For a few days, Bowling took a Greyhound bus to the city and hopped the MTA to his job in Canton. But he found that routine difficult and expensive to maintain.

Chris Hannan didn't want to lose Bowling, who had proved to be a reliable and respected employee.

"He is a born leader," Hannan says.

As a condition of his probation, Bowling makes a daily stop at a methadone clinic before going to his job. That's another reason he needed a car: to get to the clinic and avoid violating the conditions of his probation. "I'm not going back to jail," Bowling told Hannan.

"I took the car to our mechanic, who said it needs another $700 worth of repairs to get it functioning," says Hannan. "I just find this appalling. ... This is a case of a guy who is doing all the right things but has been taken advantage of and it is threatening his stable recovery."

So yesterday afternoon, Hannan went with Bowling back to the dealership to see about working something out - maybe a trade for a better car. "I just need a car that's reliable," Bowling says.

A man trying hard to stay away from drugs and remain productive, and a boss going the extra mile to help him negotiate life's obstacles - that's what I'm talking about.

I'll let you know how the story ends.


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