Getting a job can be tough if you don’t have a high school diploma, but it can be even tougher if you’ve been incarcerated and convicted of a crime. Where do you look for work when you’re just out of prison?
Chuck Jenkins is a 31-year-old park steward who has been working with Ward 8 Woods Conservancy for the past 10 months. He has a criminal record ‒ and a six-year-old son whom he loves dearly. His work with Ward 8 Woods includes any number of tasks, from removing trash, invasive species and vines that are choking native vegetation to collecting water samples in the Anacostia River and its tributaries. “We haul away a lot of stuff,” he explains, “everything from AC units, refrigerators, dryers and tons of bottles, both plastic and glass. And I’ve removed about a thousand pounds of dog poop from the parks in Ward 8!”
Ward 8 Woods Conservancy is providing “returning citizens” ‒ previously incarcerated residents ‒ with work opportunities and skills. The organization is a grassroots nonprofit organization with a mission to “rejuvenate and enhance the beauty, ecological health and public enjoyment of the more than 500 acres of forest in the Ward 8 section of Washington, DC, for the benefit of all.” Funding comes from DC’s Department of Energy & Environment, the Chesapeake Bay Trust and a variety of individuals and other organizations.
Ward 8 Woods Conservancy started its Park Stewards Program in 2018, hiring adults who have barriers to employment – including criminal records, bouts with addiction, mental health challenges and homelessness. Conservancy Executive Director Nathan Harrington, a native Washingtonian, notes that “a lot of employers see certain things in a person’s past and won’t give them a chance. Some of those people have come to Ward 8 Woods and done remarkable things.” According to Harrington, of the 20 or so people who have passed through the program, the majority have been returning citizens, and most of them men ranging in age from 20 to 50, though a few have been women.
According to Harrington, the organization “focuses on undoing decades of neglect of the forested parklands in Ward 8. We’ve removed more than 250 tons of trash and cut invasive vines from more than 3,000 trees. We’re currently ramping up for a big anti-littering campaign, with the park stewards being the ‘boots on the ground’ and the credible messengers of this campaign.”
Jenkins is grateful for his work with Ward 8 Woods. “Once you have a record, people just don’t want to give you a job. They don’t care about the skills you have. All they see is that record, and that’s the end of the story.”
Ward 8 Woods has given Jenkins a job, but also hope, better self-esteem and an entryway back into the workplace. Proud of the work he is doing, Jenkins explains that “while we don’t have the capacity to sort and recycle the trash we gather, the tires we find are ground up and used as a surface for playgrounds across the ward. I’m helping Ward 8 become a better place for families.”
Harrington has been both boss and mentor. Jenkins is now learning networking skills, and he hopes to start an E-bike business in Ward 8. He’s very close to his son and is committed to being a positive role model for him.
Harrington hopes that other organizations will adopt the Ward 8 Woods model. “To say we pick up trash is an understatement. We’re digging up tires, car parts and construction materials, hauling furniture and appliances up steep hills. It’s strenuous, dirty, dangerous work. But you get to be in the woods, you stay in shape, and there’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Our motto is, ‘Healing the land, Empowering people.’ On our best days we live up to that ideal.”
For more information about Ward 8 Woods Conservancy or to donate or get involved, visit the website at www.ward8woods.org.
Catherine Plume is a lifelong environmentalist, an urban homesteader and a writer and blogger for the DC Recycler: www.DCRecycler.blogspot.com; Twitter: @DC_Recycler. She is also chair of the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club, but the perspectives expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions of that organization.