By: Molly M. Fleming, Journal Record
Oklahoma City – In a room filled with city leaders, developers, bankers, and other civically engaged residents, developer Gary Brooks issued a challenge to business owners.“ If you’re a leader in your company, you need to start calling (Firstep) and get them in your business,” he said.
Firstep is a work and recovery program, administered by OKC Metro Alliance. The co-ed program helps people recovering from drug or alcohol abuse get back on their feet. About half of the men in the program are ordered to participate by the court. The other half are there voluntarily, said Connie Schlittler, executive director.
Some participants have felony backgrounds, which can make them difficult to hire. Brooks said at the end of his presentation at Wednesday’s Mayor’s Development Roundtable that he knows companies often have a no-felony-background policy. “That’s a stupid rule,” he said. “There are hundreds, if not thousands of people that, if you’ll give them a chance, they’ll bring value to your business.”
Brooks’ subcontractor, Williams Industrial Coatings, has been working with Firstep, bringing several men to the First National Center site. The crews have been doing the demolition work. Brooks also worked with Rose State College to set up an asbestos abatement program. He paid the university to set up the classes, and Williams Industrial Coatings hired the 20 people who were certified. “That wasn’t that hard,” Brooks said, referring to getting people trained and hired. “It took about 15 minutes of thought. If you can put 20 people to work with 15 minutes of thought, maybe we need to be thinking harder.”
Firstep Work Training Manager Brent Branham said the men have enjoyed working at FNC because they can see the difference they’re making. They take pride in what they’re doing, he said. “A lot of them have gotten job opportunities and been hired after graduation,” Branham said. “We’ve had five guys graduate our program and get jobs (with Williams Industrial Coating). Some of them are in lower-to-mid management.”
Brooks said he’s been interested in the criminal justice reform work being led by Kris Steele and Clay Bennett. Many people in jail aren’t hardened criminals; they’re just people who made a mistake. He said he’s certainly made mistakes that could have got him in trouble, but he didn’t get caught. “
We need to be proactively looking for opportunities to put people to work that need opportunity,” he said. “We’re not giving away money. We’re giving people an environment where they can excel, despite the decisions they’ve made.”
Schlittler said there’s always a need for similar environments, especially in the colder months. In April, all the men at Firstep will be employed because they’ll be mowing lawns or working outside. In the winter, it’s hard to find a place for the men to work. There were 20 men without jobs this winter, she said. Work is important to recovery. “
It’s one of the most healing things for people,” she said. “It really builds people’s self-esteem. They get commended for their work. I think (employment) is the secret sauce for why our program works.”