Alabama graduates overcome jail, addiction, more to begin new lives

Published 12:29 pm Sunday, May 16, 2021

Kristin Willmon was in her 40s when she managed to escape what she would only describe as “a bad marriage” in another city. But she escaped into an addiction and fell into a life on the streets of Montgomery.

Roderick Wilkerson was in his 30s, also homeless, and in and out of jail. “I didn’t know where my next meal was going to come from,” he said. “I was pretty much that guy that they put inside the car and run him into the wall. I was just a crash dummy.”

Last week, they put on caps and gowns alongside people with similar stories and marched toward a new life, one they created during the pandemic. Getting there was as hard as it sounds.

The nonprofit Hope Inspired Ministries job training program started with 41 students across Montgomery and Lowndes counties. By graduation day, only 10 remained. Executive Director John Bowman said they had to battle through a lot more than traditional job training.

“People oftentimes say, ‘Why doesn’t this person get a job?’ Many times they have barriers in their life that keep them from working,” Bowman said. “… You’d be surprised at the people who don’t have identification. Many students haven’t had medical appointments.”

Bowman said staff members have been listed as caregivers on medical forms because students had no family.

They reach new students through referrals from law enforcement and entities like the Salvation Army, or just by handing out food in the neighborhood and meeting people. “Sometimes we have to explain it to them and speak hope into their lives. A lot of our students have never been told that they’re valuable,” Bowman said.

Willmon found her way into the program when she ran into Bowman on the street. She’s already working a warehouse job at Jim Massey’s Cleaners.

“It helps us to hopefully get some good people,” Jim Massey III said. “If you graduate from a Hope Inspired Ministries class, you have done something.”

Wilkerson is earning nearly $14 an hour at Genpak in Montgomery. He said he learned about the job training program through Patrick Aitken of the Mid-Alabama Coalition for the Homeless. Aitken was one of many taking pictures from the crowd as Wilkerson and others walked to the stage to tell their stories during graduation.

One by one, they revealed their jobs — a library worker, a commercial truck driver, a manufacturing plant employee. For most, the journey was just as much of an achievement as the destination.

Teenager Karlee Holland’s eyes filled with emotion as she described escaping a life of addiction and homelessness to land both a full- and a part-time job. “I have my own bank account now. Something so simple is just mind blowing to me,” Holland said. “I dropped out in eighth grade, so this is my first time wearing a cap and gown walking onto a stage.”

Keith Hughes sounded measured when he described his decent into addiction. “Very narrow. Very closed. Very empty,” he said.

He’s now working at Whitfield Foods. But when he talks about his goals, he doesn’t talk about a job.

“I’m looking forward to being a role model and father to my six children, just being the father that they need and deserve,” Hughes said.