Two dozen convicted felons and ex-offenders packed into a handful of meeting rooms at the American Job Center off Brainerd Road on Thursday morning for the first part of a two-day job fair tailor made for them.
The New Life Job Fair, sponsored by the city of Chattanooga, the American Job Center and Father to the Fatherless, is held twice a year in the Eastgate Town Center for those looking for a way to re-enter society by putting in the work with a new career.
If you go
› What: New Life Job Fair
› When: Friday, 9 a.m.-1 p.m.
› Where: American Job Center, Eastgate Town Center, 5600 Brainerd Road
› Cost: Free
› More info: Call 423-643-6702 to confirm your attendance
Career guidance professionals and instructors contribute time and expertise each time to teach participants how to prepare resumes, dress professionally and perform well in interviews. They say events like this are essential to ensure that community members with a record can actually build productive lives after serving their time.
"It's an opportunity to stand in the gap," said Troy Rogers, the city's public safety coordinator.
"Just because someone makes a few mistakes, does that mean that all their life they're going to be marked? That they won't be able to take care of the family or get insurance and after they buy groceries they're broke? This gives the hopeless hope."
The first day of the job fair is dedicated to preparation for getting a job, but participants get to put all their newly learned skills into action with potential employers in the second day. Rogers said the intention is to inject some hope into their lives while giving them the skills to capitalize on the opportunities available to them.
"I just really think that we've got to do more things for felons. We've got to do more things for young men and young women who have made mistakes," he said. "Let's start over. Let's get trained. Let's get the tools we need to make money and to take care of our families. Let's begin again."
For those who participate in the event, the New Life Job Fair is a golden opportunity. Samantha Smith said she's been paddling upstream for years, trying to scratch out a living with a felony on her record.
"This is really positive for people who were down and out on themselves," Smith said. "Yeah you might have some legal issues or yeah you might have some other things, but it's not the end of the road. This re-enforces the fact that we're human beings and we're going to make mistakes, but we can still be successful."
She said her record is a major roadblock to building an actual career, even though it's been more than a decade since she was convicted. She said it's all employers see when she applies for a job.
"A lot of people who have legal problems want to have good careers and participate in the city, but they're looked at differently because they made a mistake," she said. "That does not define who we are, but it's like [employers] can't ever look past it."
Maurice Jones felt similarly and said support networks are invaluable in overcoming some of those challenges.
"It really is hard out here, especially trying to find a job with felonies and things in your background," he said. "But when you have that support group or people who can help bring you out of it, that helps a lot."
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at email@example.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.