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  • McKay Campbell

Former inmates counteract unemployment through entrepreneurship

Zera Coffee Company in Denton, Texas. (Photo courtesy: McKay Campbell)

Incarcerated people face a myriad of obstacles after their release, with employment being near the top of the list. According to Lucius Couloute and Daniel Kopf’s study at Prison Policy Initiative, there is a 27% unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated people in the U.S. Couloute and Kopf found that the formerly incarcerated are 50% less likely to be called back by a potential employer, with a criminal record. Needless to say, the odds are against them.

In 2015, Linda Keena and Chris Simmons performed a study called “Rethink, Reform, Reenter: An Entrepreneurial Approach to Prison Programming” where they measured the impact of in-prison entrepreneurship programming. Even after release, former inmates face what they called “collateral consequences,” which often reside in the workplace. Keena and Simmons wrote that employment is a crucial deterrent to recidivism.

Jared Cavlovic has worked his way from addiction and jail time to now general manager of Zera’s Coffee Shop in Denton, Texas. Zera’s is a non-profit coffee shop affiliated with another local ministry in Denton, the Denton Freedom House. This ministry houses men and women who have struggled with addiction, homelessness and jail time, just to name a few. They then bring those men and women into this freedom house, clothe them and disciple them.

What began as a furniture store with a small coffee shop bloomed into a fully functioning

coffee shop that now hires people coming from these situations.

“Us being in a college town, they started to recognize that people were staying more for the coffee than they were purchasing the furniture,” Cavlovic said.

Cavlovic was a product of the Denton Freedom House. After facing drug and alcohol addiction, he found himself in the Denton County Jail. It was there he heard of and submitted himself to the Denton Freedom House. Once there, he graduated from the program, interned with the ministry, served as assistant manager and has now been promoted to his current position of general manager.

“Zera” is Hebrew for “seed” or “seed sower.” According to Cavlovic, Zera’s mission is to sow seeds into the ministry, and everything purchased in the coffee shop goes directly into that work.

“Everybody deserves a second chance at the end of the day — and we operate at that same standard,” Cavlovic said.

When asked about the struggle inmates face when trying to get jobs, Cavlovic responded that it really depends on the person. Those who desire to get jobs will get jobs. But, there are limited options. Sometimes, former inmates are not always educated on all of their options or even aware of the help available to them.

For example, Cavlovic recently found out that as a convicted felon, he qualifies for government grants to go back to school because it is considered rehabilitation for his life, but they did not tell him that.

But, through hard work and dedication to pursuing a better and more fulfilling life, he has been able to be part of a bigger story at Zera’s.

Lindsay Holloway faced a meth addiction for more than eight years. In 2010, she was indicted and found herself facing 10 years in federal prison. But, after being graced by a new prosecutor, she was sent to a re-entry program where she gained discipleship, resume training and interview training.

The prosecutors did not want to lock her up again after seeing her progress. They believed she would not commit another crime. Holloway then continued her education and fell in love with prison ministry. Six years ago, she decided she wanted to help women post-incarceration by opening This is Living Ministries.

The ministry began in 2016 and opened a safe house in 2019 where women could spend the first six months of the 12-month program on discipleship, entrepreneurship, life-skills training, resume building, getting their GEDs, parenting classes and recovery classes.

Holloway noticed that women who go to work immediately are restricted from focusing on themselves. This house gave them a safe place to focus on that growth.

“We set them up in responsibilities in making decisions and give them more exposure to being out in the world,” Holloway said.

In addition to the ministry, Holloway and her husband have a small carpentry and refurbishment business on the side, which they plan to turn into a social enterprise. Then, they can use it as a training ground for women to teach them entrepreneurial skills.

She said she wants to teach the women how to run the social enterprise through marketing, customer service and filing for licensing.

“They will have these skills to use to either help someone else build their business or to build their own,” Holloway said.

In 2019, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority conducted research on the effectiveness of entrepreneurial programming for former inmates. Throughout this program, the inmates were taught entrepreneurial skills that would help them successfully transition back into the community. According to the study, eight of the nine key participants reported back that the training prepared them to either interview for a job or start their own business.

It is programming like this that equips the formerly incarcerated with the needed skillset to successfully re-enter society and become beneficiaries of their community.

By McKay Campbell

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