Kela Hall had already finished her talk at Echo Glen Children’s Center when one member of the small audience approached her. After hearing Hall share her own experience within the criminal justice system — along with advice on what it takes to create a successful life upon release — the young woman had a request. At age 14, she was facing at least seven more years of incarceration.
“She told me her story and then asked, ‘Would you consider coming back and being my mentor?’” Hall remembered. “’I really don’t know how I’m going to make it through this.’ I just have to be responsive when somebody asks for help like that, especially our youth. I know I’m going back.”
Hall was visiting Echo Glen that day as part of an aspirational speaker series through My Journey Out Beyond (MyJOB), a Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council Program that helps incarcerated young men and women prepare for the transition back into society by connecting them with resources and training. PacMtn partners with the Department of Juvenile Rehabilitation and the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation to deliver a holistic program that includes behavioral and cognitive therapy, workplace skills training, communication skills, conflict resolution strategies, and interpersonal skills. Aside from the Echo Glen facility, the program is also in effect at locations in Chehalis and Naselle.
“We used to spend a lot of time assessing what the person’s offense was, but now it’s really more about looking at the individual as a whole and ways to support them in being successful and hitting their de
velopmental milestones,” said Kathleen Harvey, director of the Division of Community Reentry and Parole Programs at the State Department of Juvenile Rehabilitation. “We realized we have to keep the young person at the center and interconnect some of our missions, even though each organization has different outcomes we have to target.”
Part of that shift came through recognizing the challenges that many incarcerated youth are already facing, especially chronic trauma. “These youth have experienced trauma for years. It can be a difficult journey for them to see and feel change in their lives,” said Jage Curl, associate director of the MyJOB Program.
Although 95 percent of incarcerated juveniles are male, the justice system is seeing an explosion of adult women, said Harvey, so stemming that tide by providing equal and gender-appropriate services to young women is critical. “Sometimes, programs are designed for a male population so it’s really important for us to be paying attention to the gender-responsive, trauma-informed, and healing-centered approaches to abuse and neglect.”
Another factor in the shifting approach: Recognizing that of the near 1,000 students who have been through the MyJOB program since 2016, 61 percent have Individualized Education Plans or 504 Educational plans, both of which are related to learning disabilities and special needs. “Some are institutionalized because of a misunderstanding about their disability, whether it’s that they couldn’t read or write well, have Attention Deficit Disorder, or are dealing with substance abuse,” says Cheryl Fambles, executive director of PacMtn. “We spend a lot of time one on one making sure they have what they need to be successful once they’re outside these gates.”
Guest speakers are one such resource; those who visit fall into two categories, operational and aspirational. Operational visitors explain how to navigate programs like Job Corps and the YMCA and make them less intimidating. “We send students to a lot of large organizations and there’s no personalized connection,” says Curl. “Now, instead of just sending these youth out to a corporation, someone from that company is going to come to the youth, explain the services they offer, and talk about future hope.”
Aspirational speakers like Hall make an impact because they can speak from direct experience, said Harvey. “One of our key principles around reentry is community in-reach. As juvenile justice professionals, we can share information but it’s way more relevant if individuals from the community speak directly and answer questions.”
Hall felt that it was important to strike a balance between letting the young women see what was possible and being honest about what to expect. As an entrepreneur with two master’s degrees who has founded her own company and a nonprofit, the K.D. Hall Foundation, she has forged her own path after incarceration but still encounters challenges.
“I wanted to let them know the reality of both sides of it,” Hall said. “I have overcome quite a bit but there are still obstacles. You can’t let them define you.” She said she sees MyJOB as an essential component for building resilience. “The staff meets the young men and women where they are, wraps their arms around them, and provides them with life skills and job skills so they can come back into society.”
Ultimately, Hall’s goal is to leave the students with a sense of possibility. “I hope that they were able to see that they too can make an agenda for their lives and be successful,” Hall said. “It’s important to be able to say, ‘This place where I’m at right now is not where I’m going to be. It’s just where I am at the moment.’”
This unusual model of a three-way collaboration between workforce development, vocational rehabilitation and juvenile rehabilitation has attracted attention. Harvey, Fambles and DVR Director Robert Hines have presented at several national conferences and interest is growing among DVR professionals. “This model opens up doors and thinking for people,” says Fambles. “We’ve been pushing to figure out how to present these young people with a much more comprehensive set of options by better aligning our systems. It can be so hard to figure out where to go to get what they need.”
Serving this particular population gets at the heart of PacMtn’s mission, she maintained. “This is an example of why most of us do this work. Our career counselors are bringing hope and inspiration. When I think of how many young people this serves and the value of these programs, I’m so proud of my colleagues.”