By Ivan Flores
Julia Hordge heard about the community outreach program – a unique employment opportunity with the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office – through a flyer.
“I went through the process, the background checks, the interviews…We started with 30 people. It was only three of us chosen out of 30 people, so it was quite an honor,” Hordge said.
As a community outreach worker, her responsibility consists of working with inmates at the county jail. She helps them plan for the future, not only to avoid reincarceration, but to establish and reach their goals. Hordge also offers them emotional support and empathy that other people can’t.
Part of what makes Hordge’s job special is the personal experience that she brings to the table – what she refers to as her “mistakes.” Also, her position is unique in that law enforcement agencies normally don’t hire community outreach workers.
Derrick Jackson is the director of the Community Engagement Department. He’s Hordge’s boss. His staff includes a small number of these outreach workers with criminal records. He finds that their experience makes them valuable assets. However, he also understands that their jobs in his office are a second chance.
“The program itself is really designed to focus on individuals,” Jackson said. “Most street outreach programs around the country (focus) on all these community outputs… They hire people from the community to change crime rates, lower recidivism. For us, that’s a secondary measure. We focus on individuals first, community second.”
When Hordge started working for Jackson, she had two goals: to get her family back, and own a home. She now has both. Hordge is currently getting her bachelor’s in social work from Eastern Michigan University.
The community outreach program started in 2009. The staff of outreach workers is small – roughly three or four people per year – and has a high turnover rate. However, 94 percent of former outreach workers have stable housing and employment. 88 percent of them are substance-free, and 71 percent have taken up higher education.
Jackson said that the job also gives outreach workers professional credibility. When an employer sees an applicant has multiple felonies and they were employed by the Sheriff’s Office, he said, they usually give the application a second look.
However, while the outreach workers are employed by Jackson, their mission is as much preventative as it is about second chances. They raise awareness about resources available to under-served communities.
Florence Roberson is another member of Jackson’s staff. She spent years working with incarcerated women. Roberson saw that mothers of delinquent youth had a need for emotional support. They felt alone, vulnerable, and intimidated by the legal system. She started a support group for these women.
“I look at each mom in my group, and I see her potential. Then I work with them to build that potential up,” Roberson said.
What she’s really after is a generational change.
“Mom’s in one part of the jail, daddy and sister are in another. Somehow, that has to stop,” Roberson said.
Roberson and Hordge look up to Jackson for the patience and commitment he has shown the community. He brought a group of “misfits” together and allowed them to do what they were passionate about; change the community, one second chance at a time.