Today marks two years since Dawn Jones began working as the receptionist at OAR of Richmond, a reentry organization. She is also an OAR client. In 2008, Dawn was convicted of forgery and uttering (putting forged money into circulation). She was incarcerated at Virginia correctional facilities for five years and four months. Since Dawn's release from prison in December 2014, she has worked tirelessly to reclaim the life she lost—and build a new one—from scratch.
I grew up in Germany. When I moved to the United States, I worked as a nurse. I did home healthcare and worked in the hospice field. I was at work when the person I was in a relationship with called and asked me to meet him at the bank. We had been dating for a couple of years, so I didn’t think anything of it. When I met him at the bank, he stated that he didn’t have an ID to cash his check.
He was a well-known horseshoe farrier. The check, for $4,600, was payment for shoeing twelve horses. He had only shoed six. Then he disappeared. Because the job was never complete, the horse owner brought charges. In court, she stated that I was not the person she intended to harm. But they couldn’t find him, and I had written on the check to deposit the funds in my account, so they charged me. Because I have dual citizenship, I was considered a flight risk and denied bail. I went straight to Hanover County jail.
I ended up doing five years and four months. I lost literally everything. I’m not from here and I’ve always been the black sheep of my family, so I didn’t have any family to turn to. I lost my house, I lost my car, I lost all of my belongings.
When I was released, I was sent to the Stellar House, a transitional house for women. It was tough for me. I arrived with sweatpants from prison, and that’s all. With interest accruing over five years and four months, I had a $10,000 court fine. At some points, I was ready to give up. Seeing everything that had changed—it was almost too much.
But I am a determined person. I believe that if you want something out of life, you can get it—regardless of your past. I did my 90 days at Stellar House and started working for the Richmond Flying Squirrels. Meanwhile, I had been getting support, advice, and counseling from the reentry organization OAR of Richmond. Little did I know that Sara Conlon, now Executive Director of OAR, was watching me get back on my feet and do well for the Flying Squirrels. She offered me a part-time receptionist position. She said she thought I would be a really good candidate because of my background, because I know how it feels to start over. I tried the job, enjoyed it, and then, about a year later, Sara asked me if I would like to become a full-time employee.
This Friday will mark two years of working here. I’ve gained a lot in two years. I've moved off of active probation. Two weeks ago, I signed a lease for my first house. I’m in the process of obtaining my driver’s license again and getting my voting rights restored. I have my life back.
I’ve gotten to this point because I’ve worked hard. And I love my job. I love being able to help somebody who has been in the same situation as me. I just feel like this is where I should be.
When somebody arrives at OAR, I can tell if they’re just coming home by the way they walk through the door. I can tell if they’ve done a lot of time by the way they act when they come inside. I can see it. When you get ready to come out of prison, they tell you that bonding letters will help you get a job. They tell you that a career readiness certificate earned in prison will help you get a job. But those documents have “Department of Corrections” printed on the letterhead, so an employer won’t give you the time of day. The prison reentry programs build up your hopes, and then you fall flat on your face. People fall through the cracks all the time. I tell people, "Stay out of the system. Walk the line that you have to walk for now. Eventually that line is going to come to an end."
My number-one goal on a weekly basis is to see how many people I can help get a job. I try to build up connections so I can tell people, “Go to this employer at this time and tell them Dawn sent you. You will get a job.” Sometimes you need someone else to take the lead. We just had a guy come in this morning who I had told to apply for a job at a specific McDonald’s. He was so down when he first came to OAR; he didn’t know where to get a pair of clothes, he didn’t know where he would sleep. Now he’s working full-time and he loves his job.
The clients respect me because I treat them with respect. When they come to OAR, they’re excited because I know their name. When you’re in the system, you're just a number. So when people come out and you address them by name, they respect you for that. They’ve been "1669854" for 20 years. For them to come through the door one time, and then the second time I know their name? It amazes them.
I want to see people who have walked in my shoes—or I’ve walked in theirs—succeed. I want to see people be proud of who they are. They come in and think “I’m never going to get a job because I’m a convicted felon.” Wait a minute, stop. I don’t want to hear you say that anymore. Because you’re not a convicted felon, you’re not a number. You’re a human being. I can tell people that there’s hope. Because I did it. And I feel like a new person.
—interviewed April 6, 2016
Contractor and mentor
Secretary of the Commonwealth
Parts Clerk, Haley Buick GMC
Founder and Owner, Refuge for Men
Receptionist, OAR of Richmond
Carpenter and student at VCU
Writer and grandfather
General Manager, Haley Buick GMC
Mother and grandmother
Founder, Drive to Work
Writer and mentor
Community organizer, New Virginia Majority
Probation and Parole Officer