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Green group giving ex-cons second chance to re-build lives — and homes

A rendering of Castle Garden. Photo courtesy the Fortune Society.

A New York City non-profit that branched out into development ten years ago is once again adding to its repertoire — with education.

With help from a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fortune Society recently began offering men and women with criminal histories hands-on training for green jobs in its environmentally friendly Harlem building.

“For our clients, they come with so much stigma it’s hard to get them through the door to get looked at,” said Joanne Page, Fortune’s CEO. “We want to give them an edge, and green training is a great way to do that.”

Lloid Reavis was skeptical when he first heard about the organization.

“I thought, it’s not going to work for me,” said Reavis, originally from Jamaica, Queens. “But I gave it a try.”

The former inmate went through a two-week job development class where he learned about writing resumes and communication skills, completed math testing and even learned about body language when speaking to potential employers.

“I didn’t really have any resources when I came home from prison,” he said. “I was always on the streets and I didn’t know anything about looking for employment and filling out applications, or searching the internet. Fortune did a lot for me.”

The Fortune Society was founded in the late 60s as a self-help and community-building organization, with the goal of helping former inmates re-join society. In 1995, the group realized that people they were seeing couldn’t get the housing they needed to stabilize their lives.

Real estate was the answer. Ten years ago, the group bought and renovated a building in West Harlem, and also picked up a neighboring vacant lot.

JoAnne Page

“It was a huge deal for us,” Page said. “We’d never done real estate or housing. But we knew we needed it – we had a huge gap in services.”

Then, in 2010, the vacant lot became Castle Gardens: an 11-story, 110,000 s/f mixed-use building built in partnership with Jonathan Rose Companies.

“Once you start housing people and start seeing how it changes their lives, it’s an addiction,” Page said. “It’s so amazing to watch them blossom.”

In addition to a total of 114 one-, two- and three-bed apartments, the building includes 20,000 s/f of office, meeting and community space. In the rooftop garden, residents learn to grow their own herbs and vegetables.

After three months at Fortune’s facility, Reavis was certified in building renovation, asbestos and lead paint removal, basic electrical work, and basic plumbing. Fortune gave him the necessary skills to obtain a job, he said, but it was his effort after completing the program that ensured he found one.

“They did a lot for us just by giving us training,” he said. “But you have to put in the same effort yourself or you won’t find anything.”

Reavis, now gainfully employed and making a healthy salary, said Fortune even helped him with child support issues and parenting classes.

“I’m really happy with where I’ve turned out right now,” he said.

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