Starting Over for Success, or SOS, is a Barry County non-profit with the goal of helping with a successful transition from jail back into society by probationers and parolees.
SOS was founded in 2008 by former Barry County Commissioner Joyce Snow when she saw firsthand how hard it was for those who had been in trouble with the law to rebuild their lives without a job or a place to live. It is administered by a board of seven directors.
“All of the board members have been touched by this population through their employment or friends or family,” Snow said. “We all see the need and the positive results that can occur when people get a second chance. We know that it is not just that one person we have helped, but their parents, their children and the community where they live, the community where we live.”
Operating like a staffing agency the group provides job training, development, searches, and retention and access to community resources. Snow contacts potential employers to discuss their needs, help with interviews and possibly provide transportation.
Clients are temporary employees paid by SOS or directly hired by a company. After the specified length of employment, the company hopefully hires the client. SOS covers all payroll costs including FICA, Workers Compensation, Unemployment, and employee’s W-2 while the client is on the SOS payroll.
The outstanding needs of clients while they re-establish themselves back into the community are jobs, housing and transportation, Snow said.
Some clients are married and have homes; others live with family or friends. SOS partners with landlords for those without a support system in the county to give them a chance to redesign their lives and remove themselves from the justice system, she said.
Employers see the value of offering a second chance to those who have made a mistake. They can work with ex-offenders temporarily before putting them on the payroll, and may apply for tax credits if they hire them. And, SOS can be called in to help with any issues or problems that may arise. “Also, by offering that second chance, they have gained some incredibly good employees,” she said.
For transportation, the board has one van and has hired a driver to bring ex-offenders to and from the job. The transportation is working well and the board is planning for a second van in the near future. The van covers all of Barry County as well as some of the surrounding area.
When Barry County Hope House dissolved last year, the SOS board accepted an offer to assume about $12,000 in Hope House assets, and then established a fund with the Barry Community Foundation for those assets.
Foundation President/CEO Bonnie Gettys said the new fund is an endowment that will provide income and long term protection for SOS. Membership also brings increased awareness of the SOS mission and more support from employers, other service agencies and the public.
“With the dissolution of Hope House, we will continue its focus on housing; it’s our focus as well. It’s a perfect fit. Our priorities continue to be employment, housing and transportation,” Snow said.
She recalls the experience of a young man who worked for one of their participating employers and re-offended, ending up back in jail. “SOS supported his attending a residential program, which he did through the court system. When he was released, he found employment and worked hard for several months, saving as much money as he could. During this time he repaired his family relationships.
“He now has his own business and is doing very well. He credits SOS with helping him and not giving up on him for his success today. I let him know that he was the one who made the changes, SOS was just there for support.”
Three SOS alumni have successfully started their own companies; one in construction, one with a tree cutting service and one with a retail business.
Directors on the board are Chair Ron Heilman, Snow, Treasurer Karen Ferrier, Secretary W. Joseph Mills, Jeffrey Westra, Elizabeth Forbes and Pat Purgiel, all with many years of service on the board.
“Personally, I believe that all SOS board members and staff get a lot of satisfaction when we see someone turn their lives around and know that is some way, SOS was helpful,” Snow said “We get peace in knowing that some children now have a better role model.”
The latest annual report by Heilman shows that in 2019:
*18 companies either took part in employment opportunities or hired directly; another nine area companies have been contacted by SOS.
*162 individuals took part in intake services
*87 of those gained employment, with 15 incomplete for various reasons.
*40 clients went through SOS, 47 were hired directly by companies.
*54 percent of clients were employed, 11 were still participating and carried over to 2020; 35 percent were terminated for different reasons.
*SOS continued to build relationships in the county, including Barry County Commissioners, Drug and Specialty Courts, County Jail, Community Corrections Advisory Council, Michigan Department of Corrections, Habitat for Humanity, Community Action Agency and Michigan Works!.
In 2019 the SOS program ended the year in the black. The board updated its bylaws and restructured its mission statement of “Rebuilding people and communities-one individual at a time” to reflect current goals of job placement, vocational skills training, transitional housing and job site transportation for ex-offenders, the report said.
Most of the SOS clients are referred by the Barry County Adult Specialty Court, Community Corrections and Barry County Michigan Department of Corrections Parole/Probation.
SOS’s income comes from the employers using the services to cover payroll and payroll costs as they do with any staffing agency. Michigan Works! West Central grants and through donations. An internal audit was done last year. With its growth, the board is seeking an independent audit going forward.
“2019 was a busy and productive year for the Starting Over for Success program,” Heilman said. “Our board and staff are amazing, which keeps our program strong, solvent and a force to be reckoned with in the Barry County Community.”