How do people with criminal histories or disabilities find jobs? This Fort Wayne startup can help

Stephanie Martin grew up in a single-parent home because her father was incarcerated most of her life.

It was a vicious cycle, she says.

He would get out of prison, not be able to find a job, and end up incarcerated again.

As a child, she watched the process in bewilderment.

She knew her father had the skills to work, but his criminal history kept him from receiving the same job opportunities as other applicants, so he wasn’t able to rise out of his situation.

“I’d seen how hard it was for people to want to change, but to not be given the opportunities to change,” she says. “Watching that and growing up in that system, it was very important for me to break that cycle.” 

Today, Martin is making good on her mission as the founder of A Chance Re-Employment (ACRE) & Training Agency, LLC, a for-profit venture in which she serves as a bridge between job seekers who face barriers and the careers they can achieve.

Her vision is to not only reduce crime in cities and recidivism rates at prisons—which are extremely high in the U.S.—but also to provide challenged job seekers with gainful, meaningful long-term careers.

“I don’t believe in just staffing bodies in order to make a buck,” she says. “I’m not really a temporary agency because my goal is I find people suitable and sustainable employment, not just temporary employment.”

Instead of a staffing agency, she sees herself as a training resource and an advocate for job seekers—first, teaching them the skills they need to find work; then, acting as a liaison between them and employers across northeast Indiana to help them build careers.

Martin's model for job seeker training is based on people-first relationships.

To ensure that her job seekers earn a livable wage, Martin doesn’t typically work with employers who pay less than $12 an hour. But that’s not the only distinction that sets her service apart.

She is fluent in both Spanish and English, and she has master’s degrees in business administration and healthcare administration. For the last six years, she’s worked as a re-employment and eligibility coordinator for the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, where she’s seen clients of many backgrounds falling through the cracks of social services.

Along with ex-offenders, she also serves job seekers who have disabilities, or anyone who faces barriers to achieving their professional goals.

To meet the needs of this diverse population, she came up with a model that’s flexible, yet personal, and it starts with focusing on people over dollars.

“In this business, that’s the problem,” Martin says. “People see the monetary aspect of it, but they don’t see the people. The model I firmly believe in is, if you’re good to the people, the money will come. But it starts with the people.”

Since she launched ACRE, she has received grants like a Farnsworth Fund, and opened an office at the Fort Wayne Urban Enterprise Association in the fall of 2018. This year, she’s expanded to hire four employees.

In the future, she would like to meet job seekers’ needs in new ways by providing transportation for them to get to and from work with vehicles like a wheelchair accessible van. She sees herself expanding into cities like Indianapolis and Terre Haute someday, too, where large prison systems exist that could benefit from her services.

Even so, she wants to keep things personal as she grows. A key part of her business model is starting each new training relationship by sitting down one-on-one with job seekers for a conversation in which she does most of the listening.

On a basic level, it’s about letting her clients know they are heard and getting to know their wants and needs.

Martin runs ACRE out of the Fort Wayne Urban Enterprise Association at 1830 Wayne Trace.

After working in rehabilitation for clients with disabilities for 10 years, Martin has seen that people with disabilities are often spoken for by their caregivers and feel that they don’t have a voice. This lack of voice affects people with disabilities and criminal histories alike, and it also influences their job search, Martin says.

She finds that when many of her job seekers first meet with her, they ask her to place them in a position as quickly as possible—regardless of the work. But she refuses. Instead, she asks them about their passions.

“The first thing I ask them is: What do you want to do?” Martin says. “They usually say, ‘Well, I just want a job.’ But I say: ‘No, what do you want to do?’”

That’s where the lack of voice comes into play. Martin finds that many people she works with have career ambitions they want to pursue, but either no one has ever asked them about it, or they think it’s out of their reach.

She’s determined to help them change their mindset.

“We’re all getting to a point where we need to stop having jobs and start having careers,” Martin says. “If your passion is healthcare, then I’m going to try to find you a job in healthcare.”

While she earns a percentage of her client’s annual salaries if they get hired, she's willing to serve job candidates even when she doesn’t make any money from their final placement, she says. It’s all about doing whatever it takes to help job seekers find the right career for them because that’s how you break the cycle of unemployment.

“It’s not only about the job candidate finding the right fit for them, but the best fit for the employer, as well,” Martin says. “When you find that (as a training agency), employers are more willing to work for you because you’re increasing their production and decreasing their turnover so, in turn, they’re making more money.”

To ensure that job seekers and employers benefit from her services in the long-run, she checks in with one of her employers each month, making personal visits to companies across the region where job seekers have been placed.

This allows the employee and employer to tell her about any concerns they might have to prevent larger issues from developing.

“I’m a neutral party, so I can understand what’s going on and make lasting relationships work,” Martin says. “Wherever they need me, I’m coming.”

In being proactive about her work, she has found that she’s breaking down some of the stereotypes associated with staffing agencies and workers who have disabilities or criminal histories. But challenges still exist.

“I have seen employers becoming more open, but I think their cultures have been so safe for so long that sometimes it’s like, ‘Well… we’ll think about it,’” Martin says. “I’m like: What is there to really think about? These employees have exactly what you’re looking for.”

In fact, she argues that hiring employees of more diverse backgrounds might actually help northeast Indiana’s companies innovate and address new needs in society.

“The job seekers I work with see the world from a different perspective than how most people view things,” Martin says. “Sometimes, that’s what it takes to bring change that could make you stand out above the rest. It’s giving them an opportunity to let their voice be heard.”

Learn more

For more information, visit ACRE's website, find them on Facebook, or email [email protected] 

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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