Nearly 300 men of The Doe Fund's Ready, Willing and Able training program are waking up today as graduates after turning their tassels to the right Thursday evening.
For some of the men, like 24 year-old Bed Stuy native Angel Lopez, this is their first graduation.
"When I was 14, I didn't see any graduation in my future," Lopez, who is the Class of 2016 Valedictorian, said in his remarks. "Someone asked me where I saw myself in 5 years, I said 'in jail.' I thought I was being funny. Turns out, I was right."
Lopez was incarcerated for two years for attempting to sell drugs to an undercover cop. After his release from prison, he found out about The Doe Fund's program at a local shelter.
The Ready, Willing and Able program is a 9 to 12 month transitional work program that helps homeless and formerly incarcerated individuals achieve full-time employment and housing. People in the program go through a series of phases including skills training and job preparation.
Programs like The Doe Fund aid in combating some of the risk factors that individuals recently released from prison face when re-entering society. According to the National Institute of Justice, more than 60 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals were rearrested within three years. The mission of this program at The Doe Fund is to make sure that number gets lower, not higher.
Among the 300 men in the program that graduated last night, Delores Bowers was also graduating among them. Bowers was not incarcerated, but needed assistance with finding employment so she joined the Ready, Willing and Able program.
While The Doe Fund does not specifically state that the program is solely for men, Bowers feels there should be more done to support black women. The recidivism rate for black women is 45 percent, as they face even graver challenges during reintegration.
"They should give black women or women period a chance especially if they're hard working and they're trying to prove themselves and they're qualified as much as the men and they have the credentials."
Don Pridgen, a former Heroin addict, is an alumni of the Ready, Willing and Able program and now works with The Doe Fund. Since graduating from the program in 2002, he's been promoted five times.
For Pridgen, The Doe Fund was a door.
"It was a door that brought me back to myself, the man I was supposed to be," Pridgen said to the sea of blue at St. Ignatius's Wallace Hall. "The man that's talking to you tonight - he was lost. I had to walk through that door to find myself again."
The impact the program does not only extend to the individuals themselves, but it also reverberates into the lives of their families.
Six-year-old Elias Lewis was the first graduate in his family after moving on from Pre-Kindergarten to Kindergarten. Thursday was his second graduation after seeing his father, Anthony Lewis walk across the stage.
As a father, Anthony Lewis told NBCBLK the moment was profound.
"It was phenomenal to be able to see him walk across the stage and then for him to actually see his dad do it."