DANVILLE — When Sara Marzbannia moved back to Danville eight months ago, she struggled to find work.
The problem wasn't the tough job market. She had managed two fast-food restaurant franchises in Memphis, where she had lived for the the previous 1-1/2 years, and those restaurants in Danville were hiring.
The problem was her criminal past. Marzbannia served prison time from November 2009 to July 2010 for manufacturing methamphetamine, and the local businesses told her they didn't hire convicted felons.
"They wouldn't consider me, even though I had excellent references from my previous employers," recalled Marzbannia, who successfully completed a drug rehab program and has been clean for several years.
Marzbannia said she was able to land her current job, assistant manager of Arby's on South Gilbert Street in Danville, thanks to a program that gave her and other ex-offenders a second chance.
On Saturday, she and 14 others will graduate from the Second Chance Program at a cap-and-gown ceremony at the David S. Palmer Arena.
The Second Chance Program at New Directions Treatment Center, at 153 N. Vermilion St., Danville, was established last year. The intensive 10-week program aims to restore ex-offenders' dignity and self-esteem and provide them with the skills and a support system that will lead to gainful employment.
"The goal is to help them become self-sufficient," Director Janice Coleman said. "We want them to go from the welfare lines to the tax rolls and be an asset to their community."
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 650,000 ex-offenders are released into society every year, and about two-thirds are arrested again within three years of their release.
While the Second Chance Act of 2008 authorizes federal grant funding to government agencies and non-profit organizations for programs designed to improve their re-entry into communities and reduce recidivism, New Directions's program hasn't been able to tap into it yet, Coleman said.
The non-profit organization launched its program with a $5,000 donation from ThyssenKrupp Crankshaft Co. in Danville and a small amount of other donations.
Modeled after successful evidence-based programs in Memphis, San Francisco and West Virginia, the program is free and open to all ex-offenders.
During the 1-1/2-hour sessions held on Thursday evenings, Coleman teaches participants how to manage their anger and other emotions, resolve conflicts in appropriate ways, communicate with others and set goals. She also teaches participants how to write a resume and cover letter, and dress and prepare for a job interview.
"It's different when you have a criminal background," Coleman said, adding ex-offenders must be able to explain why they have little or no employment history or gaps in their history.
Program director Darrius Tyler also pointed out that most job forms ask applicants to check a box if they have been convicted of a felony.
"If employers see the box is checked, they won't read any further," he said.
Coleman also helps participants write a letter of explanation, in which ex-offenders have a chance to explain what they did and take responsibility for their actions. The letter also includes steps they have taken to improve their lives and how they will be an asset to their employer.
In addition, Coleman provides participants with information on community resources for drug-and-alcohol treatment, health and mental health services, housing and transportation and education and training.
"I always encourage them to go back to school, get more training, do volunteer work, anything that will help them improve their skills and be more valuable to an employer," Coleman said.
Once participants land jobs, she makes sure they're showing up and have the support and resources they need, such as transportation, to keep it.
She and Melvia Russell, New Directions' executive director, meet with potential employers to explain the program and the benefits of hiring participants. They also ask for donations to help keep the program going.
"It's a challenge," Coleman said. "Eighty percent of businesses say, 'We don't hire criminals.'"
"Others will say, 'We're an equal opportunity employer,' but then we never hear back from them," Tyler added.
But with the right fit, "they make very good employees," Coleman said, citing a Department of Justice report that says that 92 percent of felons who land a job will stay with it for at least five years. "They're so happy to have a job, they will work hard to keep it."
She also explains the financial benefits. Under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit program, employers can qualify for a federal tax credit of up to 40 percent of income taxes on the first $6,000 of wages paid to each ex-offender hired.
And under the Federal Bonding Program, employers can receive a minimum of $5,000 in Fidelity Bond insurance for those high-risk employees — at no charge to them — and protect themselves from theft, damage to equipment, etc.
Coleman said she and Tyler won't recommend participants who will misrepresent the program.
"And if we see they need more time, we'll recommend that they work on their anger management or whatever is hindering them from growing before we send them out there," Tyler said.
"There are some people who are looking for a quick fix," he continued. "This program is long-term. It's for people who really want to better themselves and want to provide for themselves and their families. They're taking the initiative and doing the work."