San Diego

‘We're All Sharks': Program Helps Formerly Incarcerated San Diegans Seize Career Opportunities

Homework San Diego is breaks down the myth of what it means to be formerly incarcerated.

NBC Universal, Inc.

Former inmates in San Diego are working toward living a better life through a local program called Homework San Diego. The program was founded by San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Captain Jason Shanley who says his life’s purpose is to be a voice for the voiceless.

Shanley has partnered with local unions to help former inmates build careers. He believes one mistake shouldn’t stop people from providing for themselves and their families.

"It's a bunch of people who, through a series of traumatic events, either made a bad decision or [were] blamed for something," Shanley said.

Sixteen years ago, Shanley started doing prison ministry, going behind the wall as a chaplain, and it slowly evolved to re-entry work.

There are four core philosophies that Homework San Diego focuses on: life skills, rebuilding families, rebuilding communities to give back what has been torn down through criminal activity, and civic engagement.

Every Friday night, members of the Homework SD family meet to discuss their challenges and their opportunities.

"It's the no judgement zone," said Homework San Diego's Abdul Raqeed. "You can put it on the table and somebody can relate to it, have the solutions or have a better outlook on that problem that you might have."

Raqeed said the group has helped him identify things he needs to work on to improve himself.

"I can say honestly the program saved my life," said Jamel Davis, who through Homework San Diego is now an apprentice with a local union. "Without Homework I would be lost, back in a gang, back in prison."

Second-year apprentice Ed Wallace was living in a halfway house after getting out of prison when he met Shanley and the Homework family.

"There's a book that I read, 'As a Man Thinketh' and he said that man is eager to improve his circumstances but not to improve himself, therefore he remains bound," explained Wallace. "So everybody is trying to improve themselves, but when you come home with zero that’s enhanced more so.. you are hungry, you are eager. Homework gives you a pathway."

These men and women want to change the narrative about what the formerly incarcerated look like.

Christina Marquez, outreach coordinator for the Electrical Training Institute of San Diego and Imperial counties IBEW local 569, said that her union has members of the Homework family as apprentices and that the experienced has even changed her life.

"I'm so proud we have at least 3 apprentices in our program right now from homework and they are thriving, and they're top of the class," Marquez said.

A former apprentice herself, Marquez, was trained by someone who learned the trade after getting out of prison.

"I didn't know too many formerly incarcerated people until I met him," Marquez said. "I was able to talk with him and learn from him."

The men and women at Homework San Diego are taught to seize every opportunity.

Homework apprentice Manny Vazquez explains it best.

"We are all sharks. A shark only needs one drop of blood to go after an opportunity to eat, so here at Homework we consider ourselves sharks. If there is an opportunity a shark is going to go after it."

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