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City Council makes it official: ‘Thank you’ Haley House

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
City Council makes it official: ‘Thank you’ Haley House
Daniel Cordon (second from l) with graduates of the Haley House Transitional Employment Program Roland Worrell, Cordon, Audley Mills and Joseph Bartley at City Hall on “Haley House Cookie Day.” (Photo: Sandra Larson)

Resolutions praise food-based service model, transitional program for ex-convicts

The Boston City Council last week recognized the 45 years of community service provided by Haley House, commending the nonprofit organization’s programs in nutrition education, life skills and employment training for ex-prisoners re-entering society.

In resolutions co-sponsored by District 7 Councilor Tito Jackson and Councilor-at-Large John Connolly, the council proclaimed June 8, 2011 “Haley House Cookie Day” and bestowed official best wishes on Daniel Cordon, creator and director of the Transitional Employment Program (TEP), as he departs Haley House to marry and relocate to North Carolina.

“Haley House started on Dartmouth Street in the South End taking homeless men and moving them into housing,” said Connolly. “It has grown its mission to also serve the community that’s re-entering society from jail … The model is that the bakery and café [on Dade Street in Roxbury] is run by folks in transition. It creates that vital pathway of support for people looking for an opportunity. At Haley House people seize that opportunity and make the best of it.”

Haley House offered job training in years past, but Cordon, who came to the organization after 15 years in prison, re-invented the program for ex-prisoners in transition. The 24-week program combines baking skills with other support such as tutoring and financial education and opportunities to talk and listen with colleagues and staff.

Councilor Jackson described the transitional program as a reflection of the Bostonian character.

“We are a city that doesn’t give up on people; we give people opportunities,” Jackson said. “And this is embodied in Daniel; he has taken this opportunity by the horns.”

Cordon was born in Colombia and adopted at age 3 by a Woburn family. After a promising youth, including captain roles on sports teams, Eagle Scout status at age 12, private high school and an academic scholarship to college, his life unraveled after his parents divorced. He joined the National Guard “on a whim,” he said, then enlisted in active duty in the army. While stationed in Germany, he killed a civilian when an altercation he says he should have walked away from escalated to violence. He confessed, pled guilty and spent 15 years in military and federal prisons before being paroled in 2009.

While he was serving the last months of his time in a Boston halfway house, his mother introduced him to Kathe McKenna, Haley House’s founder and executive director.  Cordon’s mother had volunteered there and kept McKenna apprised of her son’s activities in prison where he was mentoring and counseling other inmates as well as holding numerous and varied jobs.

He was hired as a customer service representative for the catering operation and quickly rose to manager. He soon approached McKenna with the idea of bringing the job training program back, but this time geared toward ex-inmates living in halfway houses.

Accompanying Cordon to City Hall on June 8 were three of his first TEP “graduates”: Joseph Bartley and Roland Worrell, both of whom will train the next group of TEP participants, and Audley Mills, a full-time line cook at the café who will start culinary school this fall. Mills smiled broadly as he carried a huge tray of the famous chocolate chip cookies into the council chambers.

Bartley, 44, shared a few thoughts afterward about TEP’s impact.

A crucial component for him has been the chance to talk.

“It’s about sharing those buckets of feelings you’ve suppressed for so many years,” he explained. “We talk about life skills, things you need in order to stay out here.”

Bartley was released in 2010 after 12 years behind bars for receiving a stolen firearm. He wants to stay out, and TEP could be a key factor in succeeding.

“People go back in because they don’t have a chance to talk about it,” he said.

Back the next day at the Haley House Bakery Café in Dudley Square, Mills, 29, was prepping the day’s lunch special: Mediterranean chicken over baby spinach, feta cheese and roasted red peppers with a sweet-and-sour vinaigrette.

He said that after two-and-a-half years in prison for drug trafficking, TEP offered a second chance to be a productive citizen. But first he had to persuade Cordon he was a good candidate.

“Daniel kept saying, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ And I told him, ‘Yes. I have a 3-year-old daughter to take care of. I want to be there for her. I’m ready to change.’”

Worrell, also at work that day, started TEP last fall and is now assistant baker, mixing dough for muffins, cookies and pizza crust, and handling supply orders.

Worrell has done time more than once, most recently an eight-year stint for selling drugs. He and Bartley are looking to expand TEP to serve more ex-prisoners, he said.

“Who knows what would have happened to me if I hadn’t had this?” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of guys go back to prison because they don’t have an opportunity to see they can do something.”

At 35, he’s found it a struggle to adjust to the mainstream working life after his earlier years where he had “plenty of money, cars and all that,” he said.

But he can’t go back to that life and risk prison again, he said. He’s focused on being a good model for his three children.

“That stuff was all fairy tale, what I was doing before,” said Worrell. “This is real life. Getting up each day and working hard.”

The challenges are stiff for ex-convicts seeking jobs. Their criminal record looms large, in addition to scant education and work histories. A new provision of the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) system prohibits questions about criminal record on job applications — which should help those attempting to turn their lives around — but employers can still ask about it in an interview.

Cordon acknowledges the barriers, but believes honesty and a genuine good attitude can prevail.

“It is an obstacle,” he said, sitting at the café last week looking over some figures. “You can’t do [a job search] the way it’s done these days, online and by e-mail. You have to go in, present yourself, sit down and talk.”

He did just that to land his new job, setting up a Southeast regional warehouse for a Boston-based book distribution company.

“But I share this with the guys,” Cordon continues. “How do you come across? Who are you? If you’re defined by what you did, then be prepared to always hear ‘no.’ You have to be able to convey to them that because of what you did, this is where you’re at and who you are now.”

McKenna, too, said there are ways to deal with the inevitable challenges.

“We can’t change the external situation, about jobs available and people’s attitudes,” she said, by telephone from her office at Haley House’s soup kitchen on Dartmouth Street. “What we can do is help them support each other, build networks, refer them to organizations that are CORI-friendly.” They have developed relationships with local Whole Foods managers and some smaller area food businesses, she said.

Leaving the safe haven of Haley House must happen at some point. And for Cordon, it feels right.

“It’s not a sad ending. It’s what the Haley House program is about,” he said. “You walk with a person to get them to a place where when they move on to the next chapter, they’re better equipped.”

At the podium in the City Council chambers, he had a chance to publicly thank and recognize his employer of the past 21 months.

“This reaffirms the reason we’re here: to bring about action, to bring about change,” he said. “I was able to grow at Haley House. My hope is that I’ve been an inspiration to the men that come behind me. I’m moving on, but I’ll be bringing Haley House and the City of Boston with me. You gave me a second chance. You gave me the opportunity.”