In 2001, one company started hiring mostly ex-cons. 14 years later, here's how it's going.

Jamie Paul has seen trouble.

"When you're young, you don't think about the better way, you think about the quick way. And the quick way landed me places I didn't want to be," he said.


Jamie Paul spent more than 10 years in prison. After his release, he found himself in the catch-22 of wanting a legitimate job but unable to get hired. Photo by Jess Blank/Upworthy.

Paul tried earning a living the "quick way." That was after his mother passed away, and he was faced with the burden of supporting his family in Baltimore. But it didn't work. By 2011, Paul had already done three stints in prison — a total of 10 years behind bars.

When he was finally released for the third time, Paul tried hard to go legit. He knew he was a hard worker — a competent worker. Prior to his sentence, he said, he was working and selling drugs at the same time. But like many people with a felony record, he felt trapped — few people would hire him because of his record, which Paul felt was deeply unfair.

"It's not the record that makes the person,” Paul said. "It's the person that makes the person."

But who would give somebody like him another shot? What kind of employer would be willing to trust an ex-con?

In a new series called “Humanity for the Win,” Upworthy visited Second Chance's headquarters with a video camera in November 2015 to find out who was willing to give Paul and dozens of others like him a shot.


Second Chance Inc. is nonprofit deconstruction business in Baltimore. They tear down old houses, save what can be reused, and are employing over 100 people looking for a fresh start after prison in the process.

The work at Second Chance — salvaging old houses — might be the perfect metaphor for the ways the business changes its workers’ lives.

Inside the bright, efficiently run warehouse staffed by dozens of employees getting back on their feet, you’ll find an eclectic collection of every imaginable category of home furnishing, from chandeliers to pianos to a giant, free-standing home bar the size of a gazebo. Working smoothly among the mantelpieces and fixtures, roughly 70% of the workers in Second Chance's deconstruction unit are ex-convicts — and this work is providing a rare path to a new life in this tough part of Baltimore.

“It’s easy to say, ‘They’re lazy, go get a job,’ but go get a job where? Doing what?”
— Ericka Alton

Ericka Alton is a community organizer in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore. She's seen everything in this community — including the direct link between economic pressures, lack of opportunity, and crime here.

"People are selling drugs and participating in illegal activity not by choice, but as a means to survive," Alton said.

Poverty and inequality are major challenges in Baltimore — crime and chronic imprisonment are often the result. But what’s the way out?

While Maryland currently sits atop the list of America's richest states, Baltimore remains one of the country's poorest cities. A 2015 CNN report found that almost a quarter of the city's population lives below the poverty line — and black residents suffer a disproportionate share of economic hardship.

The median household income of whites in Baltimore is nearly double that of black residents. As of 2013, 37% of young black Baltimorean men were unemployed, compared to just 10% of young white men.

That cycle produces increasingly tragic results. Baltimore saw a pronounced spike in homicides in 2015, while violent crime remained virtually flat in most major American cities. It was the deadliest year per capita in Baltimore’s history. According to Alton, many of her current and prospective clients are faced with a stark choice: sell drugs and expose themselves to violence and imprisonment, or remain unemployed.

"It’s easy to say, 'They’re lazy, go get a job,' but go get a job where? Doing what?" Alton said.

There aren’t nearly enough job opportunities available, like the ones offered by Second Chance, to help ex-cons transition into a productive life. Photo by Jess Blank/Upworthy.

Second Chance was the brainchild of Mark Foster, who came up with the idea when he realized how difficult it was to find materials for an old house he was rebuilding. Perhaps, he thought, there was a way to reclaim perfectly good, historically interesting architectural elements — the floors, fireplaces, light fixtures, and furniture that typically get junked when old homes are destroyed — and offer marginalized people a path back to society by hiring them to help scout and collect those materials.

"The biggest stereotype is that because we have been convicted that we can't be trustworthy or dependable workers, which is not true."
— Jamie Paul

The organization accepts donations of individual pieces (and sets) of furniture, as well as old doors, bathroom fixtures, and even vehicles from the general public. Entire houses are also on Second Chance's wish list (and donating one allows the giver to receive a tax deduction instead of a large bill for a teardown service).

When Upworthy met up with the Second Chance crew, a deconstruction team was busy tearing down a house in Arlington, Virginia.

"The good thing about salvage is: It's unique. It's old-school. It's fun. It's things that people tend to just brush off."

That’s what Antonio Johnson, a sales manager at Second Chance, said during our visit.

Among the haul were two toilets, a lamp fixture, an air conditioner, a refrigerator, and a dishwasher. The team ripped up dozens of floorboards and struck an old fireplace mantel, loaded it onto the truck, then shipped it back to the warehouse, where it was put on sale for $175.

Sales manager Antonio Johnson with the fireplace mantel unloaded from the Arlington house. Photo by Jess Blank/Upworthy.

Johnson, like much of Second Chance's workforce, spent time in prison. He started as a warehouse worker and has been promoted several times during his tenure at Second Chance. Johnson’s doing well — but his ability to succeed has been something that people with a record rarely get a chance to prove.

Photo by Francois Nascimbeni/Getty Images.

Jamie Paul, who’s newer to Second Chance, believes his convictions made it harder for him to get hired. According to the data, he's not wrong.

A National Institute of Justice study found that 60-75% of former prisoners were unable to find work within a year of release.

"The biggest stereotype is that because we have been convicted that we can't be trustworthy or dependable workers, which is not true," he said.

But also, former convicts who try to work again after years in prison often find their skills outdated or obsolete.

"Keeping up, especially for people who have been away from technology for perhaps several decades, is really a challenge," said Scott Decker, a foundation professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University.

A Second Chance deconstruction crew member marks a batch of floorboards with a date and location. Photo by Jess Blank/Upworthy.

Decker has interviewed 600 current and former gang members around the country and found a shocking gap in their skills upon release and the current job market.

"I interviewed a woman in her mid-30s in L.A. who had been in prison for 14 or 15 years," Decker said. "She didn’t know how to use word processing, she’d never sent an email, and she said: 'Mister, how am I supposed to apply for a job? I don’t even know how to use a computer. I have no idea how to do a resume other than to get a typewriter.'"

The catch-22: When former prisoners find themselves jobless, they often go on to commit more crimes.

A 2012 study of former Indiana inmates found that unemployment was one of the three factors that correlated most closely with whether a released felon would re-offend.

A job at Second Chance allows an ex-offender a way out of that cycle.

"It has helped me tremendously — financially, not being stressed, or thinking things that I know I shouldn't do, but I might need to do because I have a wife, a son, a baby on the way," Paul said.

A Second Chance crew unloads salvaged items from the Arlington house. Photo by Jess Blank/Upworthy.

After a 16- to 20-week training that aims to provide those who enter the program with concrete, transferrable skills, prospective employees are guaranteed a job. Some are able to leverage the training into jobs elsewhere, and the rest — along with those who prefer to stay — are hired by the organization.

"We have a guy who talks about just being proud of being able to go home and having his kid see him in his work clothes," said Pete Theodore, one of the permanent Second Chance management staff.

Most deconstruction workers stay with the company for about a year, he said. After that, the hope is that Second Chance employees can use their new skills and certifications to launch new careers.

"In some senses, I feel like a drop in the bucket compared to the need," Theodore said. "But when you look at a real life, and a real person, and a real story of change and hope, it makes it all worth it."

Second Chance is based in Baltimore but hopes to expand to Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia in the coming years. Photo by Jess Blank/Upworthy.

But the path forward is not always simple or straightforward.

A month after Upworthy visited Second Chance, Paul was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault.


"We are accustomed to some setbacks on the road to wholeness — especially given the population we serve," Theodore said.


But Paul remains on the job. Theodore said he was "saddened" by the news, and that Second Chance remains committed to assisting Paul in his career and skill development.

Jaime Paul recently faced a new criminal charge, but the team at Second Chance remains committed to working with him to build a better future. Photo by Jess Blank/Upworthy.

"In the long run, this is just a stepping stone to get you out into this world," Johnson said.


Of all the skills gained at Second Chance, confidence is perhaps the most important.


Although his recent arrest may make the road forward bumpier, Paul still hopes to own and operate his own contracting company one day.


"If you can tear something down,” he said, “you should know how to put it back up,"

Watch the video of Upworthy's visit to Second Chance below:


Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I'll never forget the exhilaration I felt as I headed into the city on July 3, 2018. My pink hair was styled. I wore it up in a high ponytail, though I left two tendrils down. Two tendrils which framed my face. My makeup was done. I wore shadow on my eyes and blush on my cheeks, blush which gave me color. Which brought my pale complexion to life. And my confidence grew each time my heels clacked against the concrete.

My confidence grew with each and every step.

Why? Because I was a strong woman. A city woman. A woman headed to interview for her dream job.

I nailed the interview. Before I boarded the bus back home, I had an offer letter in my inbox. I was a news writer, with a salary and benefits, but a strange thing happened 13 months later. I quit said job in an instant. On a whim. I walked down Fifth Avenue and never looked back. And while there were a few reasons why I quit that warm, summer day: I was a new(ish) mom. A second-time mom, and I missed my children. Spending an hour with them each day just wasn't enough. My daughter was struggling in school. She needed oversight. Guidance. She needed my help. And my commute was rough. I couldn't cover the exorbitant cost of childcare. The real reason I quit was because my mental health was failing.


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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I'll never forget the exhilaration I felt as I headed into the city on July 3, 2018. My pink hair was styled. I wore it up in a high ponytail, though I left two tendrils down. Two tendrils which framed my face. My makeup was done. I wore shadow on my eyes and blush on my cheeks, blush which gave me color. Which brought my pale complexion to life. And my confidence grew each time my heels clacked against the concrete.

My confidence grew with each and every step.

Why? Because I was a strong woman. A city woman. A woman headed to interview for her dream job.

I nailed the interview. Before I boarded the bus back home, I had an offer letter in my inbox. I was a news writer, with a salary and benefits, but a strange thing happened 13 months later. I quit said job in an instant. On a whim. I walked down Fifth Avenue and never looked back. And while there were a few reasons why I quit that warm, summer day: I was a new(ish) mom. A second-time mom, and I missed my children. Spending an hour with them each day just wasn't enough. My daughter was struggling in school. She needed oversight. Guidance. She needed my help. And my commute was rough. I couldn't cover the exorbitant cost of childcare. The real reason I quit was because my mental health was failing.


Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."