When is it too late to start over? The answer is never. Keya Jest decided on this when she became clean and took control of her future. She made the start, and United Way of the Coastal Empire helped her along the road to rebuild.
Life’s cruelties crashed down on Keya not once, but twice when she suffered two miscarriages leaving her depressed and using drugs. “It wasn’t an excuse to go out and use, but I just didn’t care about my life at the time,” says Keya.
She fell further when she became a convicted felon on various drug charges. The repercussions established barriers in her life that she could not overcome on her own. Keya knew the road to rebuild would be harder because of her record, but she underestimated the detrimental stigma now placed on her.
When Keya decided to become clean she searched for a job for two years. Many times she would be offered the position, but after a background check the offer was rescinded. Despite her amicable demeanor and infectious laughter employers only saw, a convicted felon.
“The first time it happened, I wanted to say forget it, this isn’t going to work—I am a convicted felon and nobody wants me,” says Keya.
For two years, Keya held service jobs as a waitress until she saw an ad for the Chatham Apprentice Program (CAP) offered by United Way’s funded agency, Step Up Savannah. CAP helps unemployed and underemployed adults find or create career paths that offer decent wages and opportunities for advancement by developing skills to compete in the job market.
Keya did not believe she needed the program because she was already in college obtaining her Business Management degree from Savannah Technical College. She later discovered it was about so much more than finding a job.
“[The CAP instructors] wanted to help you and said you are going to succeed,” says Keya.
CAP instructors even focused on the little things like what to wear to an interview and how to present yourself to an employer.
“At the time, I was tired of doing all the mock interviews; but once I walked into a real job interview, I was so thankful for all the practice,” says Keya. “I carried myself with confi- dence.”
The impact CAP made on Keya and her classmates reaches far beyond brushing up and shining their skills—they instill confidence and courage.
During the CAP classes, Step Up Savannah invited Nancy DeVetter, a representative from Georgia Legal Services, to help students navigate and communicate their background history to potential employers. United Way funds Georgia Legal Services’ Records Restriction and Re-Entry Program that works to help people who were not convicted restrict and seal their criminal records and obtain pardons, when they are eligible, in order to remove barriers for individuals trying to get a job, housing, and education.
The re-entry process is difficult in Georgia due to the fact that charges remain on records even if the individual is not convicted. Without sustainable employment, citizens like Keya desperately trying to find gainful employment are at a great disadvantage— most are not success stories.
DeVetter reviewed Keya’s criminal background, and identified one eligible record that could be restricted from public view. Because of Nancy’s help, Keya has more confidence addressing her background to employers.
Keya later applied for a higher wage job, but this time it was different. When the employer pulled her background history and saw the criminal charges, Keya immediately contacted CAP for help. They wrote character reference letters on her behalf and Keya was hired.
“CAP was the missing piece of my life,” says Keya. “It helped me not only get a better job, but it helped me become a whole person.” The tides have turned for Keya. Today, Keya is three years clean and drives a tourism trolley sharing her sweet spirit with visitors. Feeling empowered Keya plans to marry the love of her life and purchase a home with the help of another United Way funded agency Consumer Credit Counseling Services. Without the teamwork of programs offered by Step Up Savannah, Georgia Legal Services, and Consumer Credit Counseling Services, Keya would not have the life she had imagined for herself. Each day, one by one, let’s be stronger, more compassionate, and dedicated to not settle for less than what we are worth.