Just a year ago Aaron was homeless and running out of options. Now he is a permanent employee at HoneyBaked Ham, working 32 hours a week and loving every minute, “I love it. I love the environment, the people that I work with, and the people I work for.”
Aaron grew up on the south side of Chicago, the oldest of three children. He says that he, “didn’t want for anything,” in childhood, and describes his upbringing as, “typical middle class.” His trouble started in a high school environment that he describes as, “a big fashion show.” Envious of the expensive clothing of his peers Aaron decided to start dealing drugs to make money.
Despite holding a variety of jobs over the years, from bank teller to electrician to cook to mover, dealing continued to be a crutch that he relied on in bad times. “If I’m not working, I’m not gonna starve. I know how to make money on the street. You can make good money, but you’ll eventually end up in jail, or dead,” he says.
Aaron did end up in jail at the age of 22 in 1997 when he was arrested during an armed robbery invasion. He spent the next six years in prison.
After being released in 2004, Aaron stayed out of prison until 2009. He spent the intervening years trying to change his lifestyle by moving away from Chicago and following a girlfriend to South Carolina. “I felt like I couldn’t breath,” says Aaron, “No one knew me down there. I did good for a while.”
Aaron rented a house with his girlfriend, worked two jobs, and tried to start a new life. When he was laid off, he fell back on what he knew. Using his last hundred dollars he bought a gun and approached a neighborhood drug dealer for employment.
Things quickly spun out of control in South Carolina. “I could feel the spiral,” says Aaron. He returned to Chicago after committing another armed robbery, but ended up back in prison after the police discovered an outstanding South Carolina warrant at a routine traffic stop.
Aaron was extradited back to South Carolina where he served another two and a half years in prison. “Those years were harder than the previous six mentally,” he says. “I was too old. I knew better. It made me take a close look at my life. I knew my next mistake could be my last.”
Aaron didn’t know what to do when he was released. He lived at a homeless shelter on the south side for a time, spending his days at the library. All he owned was his prison uniform and a few extra clothes that his brother had given him.
Eventually, Aaron’s mother brought him to St. Leonard’s Ministries, a program for ex-offenders, where the residents convinced him to enroll in their residential program. The only requirement for residency was that he commit six months to the program, and as he says, “That was no problem for me because I didn’t have anything else.”
“I got food, clothes, shelter, help getting ID,” he says. Committed to making a change Aaron embraced the programming wholeheartedly. “I tried my best to make it work,” he says. He took courses in anger management, conflict resolution, and, despite never suffering from an addiction, even enrolled in the Narcotics Anonymous course focusing on his experience selling drugs. “The thrill was the same to me,” he says.
At the end of the courses, all residents at St. Leonard’s Ministries are required to take Inspiration Corporation’s employment preparation training. “At the age of 36 I had my best teacher in life,” he says, “My trainer taught me how to perform in a work environment, things that were common knowledge to other people, but not to me. Like etiquette.”
“At first I thought the trainer talked too much. I didn’t think it had anything to do with work. I didn’t understand that work is also about developing relationships. Cultivating relationships,” he says. “It was a growing experience.”
Aaron recounts a role-play exercise about sexual harassment and talks about learning to respect his female co-workers and respond thoughtfully and sensitively to their complaints. He knows now that he used to be the person that the role-play session was about, flirting with his female co-workers and behaving inappropriately.
Aaron also talks about the interview process, giving an extremely polished and well-prepared description of his experience working in the food service industry, starting with his grandmother’s kitchen. He emphasizes his skills, his interests, and his passion for the work.
After the course, he says, “I felt like I could express who I am. It helped me to realize that the qualities I have are assets.”
After graduation, Aaron’s career specialist realized that his 15 years of food service experience made him an excellent candidate for one of Inspiration Corporation’s transitional positions at Honeybaked Ham. Our business services representatives conducted a pre-screen interview with Aaron before sending him to the store to apply for the position.
“The actual interview was a breeze compared to what [Inspiration Corporation] put me through,” he laughs. After his one-month transitional position, Aaron was hired on full time at the store.
Aaron talks at length about how much he enjoys his new job, repeatedly saying, “I love my job,” like a mantra. “Being at HoneyBaked Ham is a great learning experience,” he says. He would love to do bigger things in the future like managing a store or even someday owning one, but he is happy to be where he is right now.
“I have convictions for armed robbery, burglary, embezzlement. And now for the last two months I’ve been working the register,” he says, visibly emotional about reflecting on the stark contrast. “I would do anything for those people [the store owners].”
“The first time I got out of jail, I felt like I had no options. Right now, I feel like there is no limit to the opportunities that I have,” he says.