Jacksonville's Operation New Hope founder Kevin Gay retires | firstcoastnews.com

2022-06-28 18:26:36 By : Ms. Diamond Shi

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla — The video attached to this story is from a previous, unrelated report.

This story was originally reported by the Florida Times-Union.

Aaron Hill had never met Kevin Gay.

But when Hill recently visited Operation New Hope, the Jacksonville-based nonprofit that six years ago helped him get his life on track after a prison stint, he unexpectedly encountered the retiring founder and CEO. And he felt compelled to share his story.

The chance meeting was emotional, particularly for Gay, who is departing the nonprofit Thursday after 23 years. During his tenure, Operation New Hope worked with a network of employers to help about 10,000 people transform their lives. The nonprofit has become a national model for easing ex-offenders back into their communities.

Meeting success stories like Hill, Gay said, "that's what fuels us … every day. The power of hope."

Beginning in the early 1980s, Gay was in the corporate world. He sold insurance for Jacksonville business and civic leader Tom Petway's company, now called US Assure, and rose to vice president.

The deeply religious Gay often took international mission trips until his spiritual adviser, the Rev. Davette Turk, urged him to look closer to home. Why travel so far, she asked, when Jacksonville had plenty of people in need. After spending some time on the Northside, which has high unemployment, crime and poverty rates, he realized she was right.

"Why was Nicaragua so important? That was the start of the transformation of my heart," he said. "I had lived in this city all my life, but I had blinders on."

In 1999 Gay founded Operation New Hope, which initially focused on restoring old houses in Springfield — to provide affordable housing — and hiring and training neighborhood residents to do the work. 

The intent was "to bring hope in the form of new housing, new skills leading to new jobs and a revitalized community," according to the nonprofit. Such jobs were particularly critical to workers with criminal records, which often caused potential employers to bypass them, Gay said.

"Men came to the job sites and it was the same story. They couldn't get employment," he said. "We kept hearing that over and over again."

In 2002 Gay met President George W. Bush, which led to the White House selecting Operation New Hope to develop the first national model for prisoner re-entry, an employment-based model called Ready4Work. It has since been praised by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as well and been visited by high-ranking members of the Donald Trump administration and the late human-rights activist Nelson Mandela's daughter, Makaziwe Mandela.

Through offices in Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa and St. Augustine, the program helps people with criminal records re-enter the workforce through case management, supportive services, job training and job placement assistance.

The nonprofit later added Ready4Release, which provides pre-release services in 30 prisons to ensure adequate housing, transportation and job training, and Ready4Success, which delivers primarily virtual case management and career development.

This story was originally reported by the Florida Times-Union. 

Operation New Hope's recidivism rate over three years is about 8.64%, compared to the Florida Department of Corrections' 25.7% rate. Such results help reunite families and rebuild communities, Gay said.

They also "make the case for return on investment" for donors such as philanthropists Petway, Gary Chartrand and Wayne and Delores Barr Weaver, he said. And when such community leaders get involved, "people take note," he said.

"Kevin Gay’s remarkable accomplishments during his tenure at Operation New Hope are a testament to his vision and his determination to help others," Delores Barr Weaver said. "From the founding of the organization to today, Kevin has devoted all his energy to making Operation New Hope a success, and Wayne and I are proud to have been investors along the way. We are very proud of Kevin and all he has achieved."

But the real returns come from former program participants like Hill and Charlotte Smith, who landed at Operation New Hope in 2005. Just out of federal prison where she served five years on drug charges, she was living in a halfway house, jobless and had lost custody of her three children.

She joined the Ready4Work program, which partners each client with a case manager and everything from transitional housing and funds for GED programs to bus passes, mentoring and professional attire for job interviews.

Smith graduated in 2005 and got a job at Allied Plastics where she remains employed 18 years later. She also regained custody of her children and is an Operation New Hope board member.

She joined the Ready4Work program, which partners each client with a case manager and everything from transitional housing and funds for GED programs to bus passes, mentoring and professional attire for job interviews.

Smith graduated in 2005 and got a job at Allied Plastics where she remains employed 18 years later. She also regained custody of her children and is an Operation New Hope board member.

The closer Gay gets to his final day at New Hope's Main Street office, the more emotional he gets about his departure.

But he is confident in his successor, Reggie Fullwood, who was promoted from chief operations officer to president last year. Fullwood, a former state representative and Jacksonville City Council member, is enjoying his own second chance.

In 2017 he was sentenced to six months of home detention followed by federal supervision after pleading guilty to wire fraud and not filing an income tax return. Prosecutors said he spent campaign contributions on personal costs after moving the money from a campaign bank account into one he maintained for a defunct consulting company.

He had resigned from the Legislature and lost his job as executive director for a Jacksonville nonprofit, Metro North Community Development Corp.

Gay said he hired Fullwood because the two have been friends for 20 years, he came highly recommended by respected colleagues and "we're in the second-chance business." When he and the Operation New Hope board pondered a succession plan, they realized Fullwood, in his 3½ years on the staff, has "shown we've got our guy right here … to hand the keys to," he said. 

When meeting program participants, Fullwood not only exhibits "humility and grace" but empathy, Gay said. When he meets new program participants, Fullwood tells them "by the way, I know how you're feeling" because he was in their uncertain position once, Gay said.

Then he tells them he overcame his challenges and is "about to become CEO."

"Their faces show he is part of their club," he said. "His story is going to be powerful."

After departing the agency Thursday, Gay plans to travel for a few months with his partner of 16 years, Jesse Kraker. Then his next chapter begins: forming a new nonprofit to help craft — and advocate for — legislation that will help ex-offenders.

"Change comes from policy," he said.

Among his first assignments will be continuing a "ban-the-box" initiative he worked on with JAX Chamber in 2016. The goal is delaying criminal background inquiries in employment interviews.

Gay wants to stop employers from booting job hopefuls early in the process just because they checked the application form "box" acknowledging they have been arrested, charged or convicted.

"It's punitive," he said. There should be "conversations about the box" between applicants and employers, he said. 

Ex-offenders end up serving two sentences for their crime: one in prison, the other in an unforgiving community. And both sentences tend to be worse for ex-offenders who are Black or Hispanic than their white counterparts, Gay said.

"In America, we never let go," he said. "They spent the rest of their life wearing 'The 'Scarlet Letter.' They can't get housing or jobs because there are all these barriers." 

Gay is passionate about addressing such barriers. So he will retire — then unretire.

"I love this work," he said. "It's been the greatest gift."

Call Operation New Hope at 904-354-4673 or email info@operationnewhome.org. 

This story was originally reported by the Florida Times-Union. 

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