MILWAUKEE — A new organization in Milwaukee is connecting formerly incarcerated people to jobs.
The Way Out was started by Eli Rivera and Ruben Gaona. Both men grew up in Milwaukee and both have spent time in prison.
"I began manufacturing marijuana in my early 20s and ended up going to prison for that," Rivera said.
But when Rivera got out, he said he was one of the lucky ones who was able to find work. He heard stories of other men who couldn't find jobs and ended back behind bars.
Although employment has been found to reduce recidivism, according to the Brookings Institution, only 55% of formerly incarcerated people find jobs within their first year of release.
Years later, Rivera's own experience and the stories he heard from others inspired him to start The Way Out with Gaona. 2019 was when the idea started taking shape, 2020 was about building the organization, and 2021 was the first full year of organization up and running.
"This is really a golden opportunity for us to prove how valuable we can be to the workforce, those of us that have been justice impacted," Rivera said.
So far, The Way Out has connected over two dozen formerly incarcerated, or justice impacted job seekers, with employment. Rivera said the goal is to "get justice impacted persons in front of employers by removing work history, their name, their zip code. Anything that may cause implicit or otherwise a bias on behalf of the employer."
One of those people is Toran Brooks.
Brooks said he began getting in illegal activities at a young age.
"I ended up being shot when I was 17. I ended up going to prison when I was 17. Sentenced to 45 years for second-degree intentional homicide," Brooks shared.
He was released in March of 2021 after 24 years into his sentence. He described the first half of his time in prison as "rocky."
"It was an adjustment period for my family, and then I also had to deal with my conscious for the acts that I did," Brooks said.
But, eventually he realized he needed to start thinking about the day he would be released and what he would do with his future.
"When they released me, I wanted to have as much knowledge and as many trades under my belt as possible. During my incarceration I picked up several trades. Everything from welding, to dog grooming, to dog training, to culinary arts," Brooks said.
And some of those skills ended up landing him a job after he connected with The Way Out during an event held by EXPO (Ex-incarcerated People Organizing).
In less than a year Brooks went from being in prison to being an Operations Manager at Dogtopia, thanks to the connections made by The Way Out.
"I'm a huge dog lover, that's my passion," Brooks said when talking about his job at the dog daycare facility.
At Dogtopia Brooks does everything from training, grooming and supervising the dogs. The Way Out continues to support and stay in touch with Brooks through the organization's mobile app "My Way Out."
The organization and the app also help connect employees with need social services to make sure they're able to be successful in their jobs.
"We want to make sure that before we find them employment, they're not worried about housing or healthcare or transportation or any other issue," Rivera said.
Justice impacted job seekers can start by heading to The Way Out's website to fill out an on-boarding application. From there, someone from The Way Out will reach out. Employers can also reach out to the organization about getting connected to potential employees.