Laura Ford was born in Southwest Philadelphia where she attended West Catholic Girls High School. After graduating, Laura obtained a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Immaculata College. Her first job out of college was in Germantown at the Claver’s School for Girls, a residential center for girls committed by the court, run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. She then went on to work in student services in a nursing school until she took time off of work when her son was born. Laura reentered the workforce at Chestnut Hill College as the Director of Financial Aid for nine years and in that time, completed a masters program in counseling. It took her about a year of searching and taking another financial aid office job before she discovered where her true passion lies. Her friends told her about a opening through Catholic Social Services to work with women in the county prison. Laura had never thought about working in a prison before, but after touring the jail and meeting the women, she instantly knew that was where she belonged. She developed a prenatal education program for the pregnant women in the jail. Through this experience, she began to meet with women individually in the chaplain office. After her first year there, she went on to become the director of the prison ministry program of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. She coordinated all of the religious Catholic services and volunteers who came into the prisons. During this time, she worked with Vincentian Father Greg Cozzubbo, who was then the Catholic chaplain of the Philadelphia prison system. Together, they began to notice that the same people were coming in and out of jail and that they wanted to respond to this issue of reentry. They developed a mentor program where they trained volunteers to work in teams of three with one inmate, beginning a relationship inside the jail and continuing for a year after they left. As a way of responding to their practical needs, she also collected clothes and toiletries for prisoners returning to the community. During this time they also received an annual grant from the Vincentians to help people with needs such as first month’s rent, job search expenses, etc.
Laura retired from full time work with the Archdiocese and then, along with Vincentian Father Tim Lyons, started a small re entry program at her parish of St. Vincent’s Church in Germantown. In responding to the needs of the formerly incarcerated, they realized that the most difficult challenge for these men and women was finding work because of their criminal record. During this time, Laura had been meeting with a group of men called People Advancing Reintegration (PAR) in the Graterford State prison. These men, serving life sentences themselves, developed a program of classes for men who are eligible for parole on how to set goals, make decisions, and create a written plan of action for when they are out of prison. Along with these men, Laura, her friend Mimi, her husband George, and Father Tim Lyons realized they needed to start their own business. They researched and found a company called Recycle Force in Indianapolis who hired men returning from prison to the community and recycled used electronics. These electronics are collected, deconstructed, and sold to scrap dealers, creating an income for the employees. After visiting Recycle Force, the team decided to start their own business in Philadelphia. They began by collecting donations of electronics from local businesses and schools, including hosting a recycling event at St. Vincent’s Church. Then, they hired three men who recently left prison and then found a warehouse in Germantown where they officially began operations in February of 2016.
The larger goal of PAR-Recycle Works today is not only to provide transitional employment to people returning from prison but also to immerse them in a supportive environment that helps them adapt to live outside of prison. The goal is for people to stay with the company for 6-9 months before assisting them with full time employment and responding to some of their other personal and developmental needs. This is accomplished by deconstructing computers and other electronics and recycling them into properties that are sold to pay their employees.
“We loved the connection between hiring people who generally get thrown away themselves and also electronics that get thrown away.”
Q1 : At the center, we talk about the importance of not judging people that we encounter and recognizing that everyone has a complicated story beyond their immediate struggles. So, as someone who works with people who are returning from prison and seeking employment to move on with their lives, what would you say you’ve learned from those encounters that may contradict judgment someone else’s perception who doesn’t do the work that you do?
“Well, I see people who really have changed from their experience in prison, especially those who have been in for a long time. I see people who really want a second chance and want to work hard to get it. And if given a chance to be hired, they actually respond to it. They respond to the learning experience, they respond to your concern. They’re just like everyone else. They are looking for community, they’re looking for a paycheck, they want to know what it’s like to go out to work in the morning and be able to provide for their families. They have all those desires and they just happened to have made sometimes very terrible mistakes. But they all deserve, in my opinion, a second chance. People who visit our warehouse and meet our team are always impressed by their enthusiasm, good manners – all of the opposite things of how people perceive people who have been incarcerated. And they want a family life, they want to raise their children, they want to be a good example to their children – all those things.”
Q2 : You had said you never felt scared to encounter people who have been incarcerated. Do you think that was because it was your calling or what do you attribute that to?
“I’ve said to people. if it’s your calling, then you feel comfortable in a way, at least that’s how I would describe it. When I was working in Catholic Social Services, people would often say how can you go into a prison and I said ‘well, it feels just right to me from the beginning.’ But if you wanted to put me in front of a classroom of 1st graders, I would be terrified and yet to other people, it comes easily…Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could live in a world where everyone could use their gift and get employed and paid for it? I feel really blessed that happened for me.”
Q3 : Could you describe a moment when you really saw the impact of PAR Recycle Works on someone’s life?
“Just recently, we had a young man who came to us who had a difficult childhood and and was really scared in the beginning. He was quiet and shy but the other men in the group, our Operations Manager, Maurice Jones, and Warehouse Manager, Gerald Williams, who both were formerly incarcerated themselves, took him under their wing. In the beginning, he wasn’t always showing up on time but little by little, you could just see the growth and change in him. He became more animated, enjoying the work more. He just got hired by the scrap company that we regularly do business with; he is the second man to be hired by this company from PAR-Recycles. So, it was just a joy to see the change in him and how good he feels about himself.”
Q4 : What is the greatest lesson that you feel like you have taken away from your work?
“That we’re all alike and all human beings and we all want the same things – we all feel the same things, we all desire to be loved, to be cherished, to be honored, to provide for our families. We’re not different, just because people have made terrible mistakes doesn’t make them different from us. You know, sometimes it’s just circumstances of life – one thing that happens to you, maybe during childhood, that gets you into a certain circumstance that changes your life forever. But underneath all of that, we are all the same. I remember the first time that I was in the prison I saw that they had a beauty parlor and I remember the women were laughing, talking, and getting their hair done by the other women in prison, and I thought ‘oh my gosh, they are just like women everywhere! They’re just women like me and my friends.’ We like to put labels on one another as if we’re a different species or something, but we’re all God’s children.