California Forum

Pushing to overcome her past

For the past eight months, I’ve spent most of my waking hours looking for work. I’ve filled out more than 100 applications and interviewed for 20 jobs, to no avail.

Recently I applied at a fast-food restaurant, attending a group interview for the position. I was the only candidate available to work any day at any time, and I felt good about the interview, but I did not get the job. The reason? My criminal record.

Federal law says employers can’t discriminate against applicants based solely on their criminal history, but with so many people unemployed right now, companies can and should be choosy. That means applicants with a cloudy past, like me, are often disqualified immediately, no matter our education and experience.

On job applications, it would be easy to not check the “box” inquiring about a candidate’s criminal history, but my conscience won’t let me do it. My past is hindering me, but I won’t let it hold me back.

When I began this journey, I had six months clean from substance abuse and lived in a homeless transitional program. My children, while safe with family, were absent in my life, which was heartbreaking for me. It was a struggle to put the pieces of my life back together, but I had faith in the spiritual path I had been walking in recovery.

I am blessed to have a certificate in community studies and need just a few more classes to complete an associate’s degree in human services. I worked for more than four years in the social services field with diverse groups of high-risk populations, such as veterans, chemically dependent adults and the homeless. I also have more than five years of experience in the food and beverage industry, bartending and serving.

But with gaps in my work history, my confidence in re-entering the workforce was shaky. Thankfully, I took the suggestion of a courageous woman I met in recovery and enrolled at the Sacramento nonprofit known as Women’s Empowerment. It was a transforming experience.

Every day throughout the two-month program we were surrounded by loving staff dedicated to helping us regain our footing in the world. We were visited by inspiring, committed professionals from the community, who educated us on everything from how to dress professionally to interview techniques, public speaking and finding housing.

We were given access for life to a donated clothes closet we called Macy’s. Generous employees from Intel Corp. spent every Friday teaching us basic computer skills like Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Each of us was also assigned our own professional mentor, who met with us weekly to help us develop our employment portfolio along with a career-minded attitude.

The staff at Women’s Empowerment taught me how to display the assets I have with integrity, and by graduation day, a day I will always remember, I felt accomplished and prepared for the working world, with renewed self-confidence.

My next step toward stability was becoming a resident at Volunteers of America’s Mather Community Campus, a one-year transitional housing and employment program. There, I completed on-the-job training in a full-service commercial kitchen and with a janitorial crew – and continued my daily search for work.

Recently, I was fortunate to obtain two weekly shifts as a banquet server, thanks to a friend who helped me get my foot in the door. I love the work and am grateful, even though I need a second job now to cover rent.

At Women’s Empowerment, we learned that our past does not define our today, and I am willing to go to any lengths to change my life, better my future and overcome the drug-related offenses that haunt me still. I will continue to live with integrity and check the box.

I get discouraged sometimes, but I have faith that there is a plan and a purpose for me. Until then, I’ll keep pushing.

Candice Barton, an aspiring writer, lives in Antelope.