by Daniel Schere

Auto body program part of larger push to rehabilitate ex-offenders | @Daniel_Schere

At Southside Rides auto body shop off of Waughtown Street in Winston-Salem, Dave Moore talks with his employees to get an update on how their latest projects are going. The staff all have one thing in common: they are former offenders. Moore started the shop 10 years ago after being released from prison. He has trained hundreds of ex-offenders through auto body classes that he teaches through Forsyth Tech.

“I’m an entrepreneur, so I’m training guys to be entrepreneurs,” he said.

Each year, Moore teaches three classes of 10-15 students each at his shop in addition to about six classes he teaches to inmates that are in prison. He will soon be partnering with Davidson Community College to teach courses there, as well.

Southside Rides is one of six organizations around the city to receive money from a $50,000 grant set aside for a new city program known as Successful Outcomes After Release (SOAR). Another $50,000 will be spent on a workforce development program set to begin in the spring. Assistant to the City Manager Evan Raleigh, who is in charge of the program, said there is no guarantee for funding next year, but council members have expressed support for it.

“The funding as far as the program’s concerned for next year is up in the air,” he said.

Raleigh said former offenders that enter the program will be required to pass a pre-employment screening and complete a certified job skills training program. Each session lasts 16 weeks and can accommodate eight people.

“It will give folks that might not be able to be employed otherwise an opportunity to be gainfully employed, and it will enable the city to meet some of its most critical workforce needs,” Raleigh said of the program.

Councilman James Taylor Jr. has been one of SOAR’s proponents and said the first participants will enter the program this spring and be paid $10.10 per hour.

“This thing was my brainchild,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that we were providing this opportunity for our citizens and I’m glad we were able to make it happen.”

Moore said he has been in contact with Taylor and other civic leaders in providing support for a program he feels is long overdue.

“I’ve been begging for this from day one, since the day I got out of prison,” he said.

Brandon Reynolds, one of Moore’s former students, opened the auto body shop Timeless Concepts on the north side of town in April. Reynolds became involved in gangs during his teenage years dropped out of school but was able to avoid jail time by joining Southside Rides.

“I always had an interest in cars, watching TV and various things like that,” he said. “So my nephew was like hey, I know a place where they show you how to work on cars. So I said OK, let’s go.”

Reynolds worked at Southside Rides for three years before joining the Army in 2007. While on active duty, he was stationed at Ft. Bragg and served in Iraq and Kuwait on two separate tours of duty.

“It definitely opened my eyes and humbled me a little bit,” Reynolds said of the experience.

Reynolds, now a reserve, said he might not have joined the military had he not met Moore. While overseas, he took courses that went toward his associate degree and is currently a full time student in Forsyth Tech’s auto body program.

“Had it not been for me running into Mr. Moore, I probably would be in prison,” he said. “Still getting into trouble, still doing things that I shouldn’t be doing.”

Reynolds admits that his story is one of the more successful ones among those with troubles pasts. He was able to get an apartment upon returning to Winston-Salem, which he thinks is due to his military service. When asked if he thought he could ever become a doctor with his background, he said he thought it was possible but that he never considered it.

“I think it would be obtainable if that was something I really wanted to do,” he said. “I think in the back of your mind, it still is kind of unreachable given the circumstances. Because you don’t see that.”

The road has not been as smooth for employee James Davis, who received several robbery charges in high school. He lost his football scholarship to Appalachian State and got third-degree road rash in an accident. Davis graduated from Mount Tabor High School in 2006 and was able to spend one year at Forsyth Tech, but needed a loan.

“At that time I had two jobs and a baby on the way, so I needed more money than school,” he said.

Davis was denied financial aid and was forced to pay out of pocket. He found out about Southside Rides on Facebook and joined the team this year.

“I’m at the point in my life where I’m ready to make some changes,” he said. “This here’s a start for me.”

Davis said he hopes he can be a better father to his children than his was to him.

“My dad wasn’t around growing up, so I know that I want to be in my girls’ life. That’s it. I just want to be able to protect them, guide them, teach them.”

For ex-offenders, carrying around a former conviction is akin to wearing a scarlet letter. Background checks have made it very difficult for them to get an apartment or a good job upon their release.

Suzy Baxter, property manager for the Nissen Building Apartments, said she came across a number of applications when she worked in Florida that were checked yes to the “have you ever been convicted of a crime” question. She said at that point she would stop the application process and contact them to explain their qualifications.

“Back in the day, not here, but other places I give them the option I can still run their criminal and credit, but if there’s any issue they’re going to be denied,” she said.

Baxter said not many people who would be forced to check yes would be applying for an apartment anyway since it is likely they would be denied.

Moore and his employees are excited for SOAR to begin, and Reynolds said he hopes that ultimately it leads to more full time employment for ex-offenders.

“That will give them an opportunity to build a career and hopefully entry level into the auto body industry or whatever industry they go into,” he said.

Reynolds said ultimately he thinks the program’s goal should be to prevent crime, not just address it.

“If you can get to people early, there wouldn’t be any need for reintegration because they wouldn’t become incar- cerated in the first place,” he said. !