James Smallwood, 62, started The Choice Is Yours by accident.
Almost 20 years ago, he ran across a group of single mothers in Camden, N.J., who were duped into buying dilapidated houses.
"They found themselves prostituting themselves to contractors to get things fixed," Smallwood says. "I didn't want to see ladies selling themselves just so they could get a faucet repaired."
Smallwood, a carpenter by trade, used a $5,000 grant to teach these women basic plumbing and carpentry skills so they could maintain their own homes.
Five years later, that experience inspired him to develop a 13-week program aimed at teaching ex-offenders, single mothers and anyone else in need of a hands-on trade. Whenever he has funding, Smallwood runs the class five nights a week.
Participants age 18 and older also get math, reading, GED prep and résumé assistance. Smallwood also helps his students find jobs directly after they graduate. More than 600 people have completed the program and about 82 percent remained gainfully employed for at least two years.
"Most people who are released from prison don't have a job, a home or even enough food to eat," Smallwood says. "Most of the time they end up back in prison. Our aim here is to empower them and give them skills."
Smallwood knows all too well what it's like on the streets.
He sold and used drugs for about 12 years. He spent time in prison and lived on the streets of Philadelphia for two years.
In 1989, Smallwood grew tired of eating from trash bins and feeling hopeless. He made a promise to God that if he could sober up, he'd devote his life to helping others.
"I hadn't bathed in over a year and a half," Smallwood recalls. "Bugs were popping off of me. I knew I had reached my lowest point and I was ready to obey [God], and I walked many miles to a rehab center. I haven't had a drink or a drug since then."
In 2009, Smallwood received one of the $50,000 Purpose Prize awards. But he is always in search of additional funds, because his program costs between $7,000 and $8,000 per student.
He interviews about 100 people for each class and only around 30 make the cut. Smallwood receives referrals from parole boards, probation offices and word-of-mouth.
He frequently speaks to different groups about the effectiveness of his program. Smallwood has even met President Barack Obama.
“If I didn’t have devastation in my life, I wouldn’t have the knowledge that I have to help other people,” Smallwood says of his past. “I’m not angry about it at all. God had me right where he wanted me. Now I’m an
example for other people that change is possible.”
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