Ex-inmates starting over in Camden

    Opportunity Reconnect-Camden provide one-stop shopping for ex offenders to get help

    The grand opening of a new center in Camden, New Jersey Thursday drew politicians, the Chancellor of Rutgers-Camden, and some people with criminal records.

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    Outside the Opportunity Reconnect center cars thunder by buildings dotted with graffiti. Inside, ex-offenders are trying to get a new start.
    17LFINMATE Graffiti near Opportunity Reconnnect building
    Linda Murray is helping William Lee fill out his paperwork. Lee says he’s been looking for a job on his own since he got out of prison but it’s been difficult.

    “It becomes frustratin’ at times but you know you keep hope alive – you keep doin’ what you gotta do.”

    Joe Cassisi is the Director at Opportunity-Reconnect.

    “Everybody’s gotta get a dollar in their pocket one way or the other.”

    He says the center’s clients need jobs and housing first. The center connects former prisoners with help that normally would be spread out through a dozen agencies.

    For Michael Dunlap it’s finding legal assistance that he appreciates the most.

    Michael Dunlap
    Michael Dunlap

    “They helped me to try to obtain legal aid…in getting some of the things expunged – the dismissed charges – so it doesn’t look bad when you’re going for jobs. And I believe they’re in the process of helping me get housing.”

    Dunlap just got out a few months ago after spending nearly 15 years behind bars for manslaughter. He now lives with his mom. He says one of his sons was killed while he was in prison and now he’s trying to get his life straightened out so he can serve as a role model for his 21 year old.

    Joe Cassisi says Rutgers-Camden runs the re-entry program on a grant from the Nicholson Foundation, a North Jersey-based nonprofit.

    “They’ve been extremely supportive but they also have a goal that we need to become self-reliant. The county and the city will eventually have to take up the funding for a program such as this so in order for that to happen we have to make a difference, we have to document what we’re doing, and hopefully down the road people will see this as being a valuable piece of the fabric here in the city of Camden.”

    Trimming hedges and pulling weeds may not be some people’s idea of a dream job, but it could be a life-changing moment for a few people with a criminal record.

    After the center’s grand opening, nine ex-offenders graduated from a landscaping training program. They got their slots in the program, thanks to Opportunity Reconnect-Camden.

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