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Saturday, December 4, 2021

Smith: Don’t throw them away

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When people think of a “typical” Jamaican, the following image probably comes to mind: a red-headed (slightly graying), somewhat rotund white man who stands roughly 5 feet, 6 inches tall.

Even in the unlikely event that one forms a different mental picture, that is nonetheless an accurate description of Mr. Gregg Keesling. Keesling is founder and president of RecycleForce, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that is dedicated to recycling products — and to rehabilitating people. (Incidentally, Keesling is happy to slip into his native Jamaican patois.)

Approximately 600,000 people are released from state prisons in the United States annually; more than two-thirds of them will be rearrested within just three years. Roughly 4,000-5,000 people return to Marion County from the Indiana Department of Corrections. Most of them find it difficult to reintegrate into society.

Founded in 2004, RecycleForce has hired more than 1,200 hard-to-employ people, offering them on-the-job training, industry-standard certifications and job placement services. Society greatly benefits as these workers have recycled more than 65 million pounds of electronic waste since 2006. Employees receive a fair wage and have access to several benefits: professional and peer mentoring; high school equivalency and literacy tutoring; assistance with housing; driver’s license reinstatement; substance abuse and mental health counseling; and tax preparation, budgeting and financial literacy training.

Organizations like RecycleForce fall under the rubric of social enterprise. The phrase is intended to convey a sense of purpose as opposed to merely a striving for profit. The Social Enterprise Alliance says that such organizations “address a basic unmet need or solve a social or environmental problem through a market-driven approach.” For social liberals and fiscal conservatives, social enterprise is the optimal marriage of money and mission.

Keesling, who has been involved in workforce development for a quarter century, also co-founded (with his Jamaican wife, Jannett) Keys2Work, which can be described as an “alternative staffing social enterprise.” Mr. Keesling, who receives high praise from city-county council President Vop Osili, was recently named a Hoosier Resilience Hero by Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute.

Most of the people who work at RecycleForce have been discarded by society. Thus, the organization is focused on the three R’s: Reentry facilitation, Returning citizen rehabilitation and Recidivism reduction. Obviously, returning citizens face substantial obstacles.

Most of them lack jobs and few even have a home to return to. As much as 50% of those who are from Indianapolis and Marion County will reoffend and return to the criminal justice system. A recent study demonstrated that RecycleForce has reduced recidivism by 6.2%.

That study also found that the reduced recidivism resulted in the organization providing benefits to the Indianapolis community totaling $13,297 per person. Fewer trips to jail and prison alone led to savings of $3,565 per program participant. It also prevented members of our community from being victimized. That is priceless.

RecyleForce helps returning citizens break down barriers to employment by providing transitional jobs for up to six months and offering wraparound services that help to get participants’ lives turned around. The model offers program participants an integrated focus on jobs skills, character development and personal counseling. Such services substantially increase the chance that participants will sustain future employment, which also decreases the likelihood of reoffending.

Another factor in RecycleForce’s programmatic success is its commitment to rapid attachment, which refers to the number of days between the time participants enroll in the program to the time they receive their first paycheck.

In short, RecycleForce has successfully reduced recidivism among participants, increased their pay and improved their abilities to support their families after leaving incarceration. In addition to removing electronic waste, our community benefits from the former offenders’ increased wages, reductions in victimization, reductions in law enforcement costs and reductions in costs that are associated with judicial administration. RecycleForce returns a profit to the government, so its programs literally pay for themselves. The organization is a model that is ripe for replication throughout the state and nation.

RecycleForce demonstrates that human beings are not trash.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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