Center works to rehabilitate ex-cons

Construction worker Sean Hill, right, leans on Evangelist Construction worker Sean Hill, right, leans on Evangelist Reginald Benjamin, executive director of the Able Bodies of Believer's Alliance at the Metro 303 construction site in Hempstead. (Sept. 8, 2012) Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

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Reginald Benjamin is a man on a mission: to find construction jobs for Hempstead Village residents with criminal records. And the effort has won praise from village officials, developers and residents.

Benjamin, an ex-offender, since June 2011 has helped 128 men and women find full-time and part-time employment through a job-placement program of his faith-based ABBA Leadership Center.

With planning for the village's $2 billion downtown redevelopment project well under way, his goal is to train hard-to-employ and at-risk residents for the 10,000 construction jobs expected to be created, he said.

The training and placement program has become "massive," said Benjamin, adding he has a waiting list of 228 people looking for training and jobs. "We get referrals from everybody -- agencies, churches, village officials, residents and developers."

Benjamin, 56, served two prison terms for gang affiliation and selling drugs, and was released in 1986. Now, his goal is to prevent the formerly incarcerated from entering the criminal justice system again, he said.

"We are examples of change," said ABBA job developer Kevin Robinson, 45, an ex-gang member who served a total of 16 years in prison through 2005 for selling drugs, gun possession and assault. "We understand the process and the accountability. It is not just about you getting a job. It is about opening doors for others."

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Village Mayor Wayne Hall Sr. said the program is "important" because of its goals and results.

ABBA's program includes job readiness workshops, job safety training, weekly site visits and communication with employers who accept workers with criminal records. "Our guys are being trained, they are getting experience and now they are becoming model citizens," Benjamin said.

One participant is Sean Hill, 38, of Hempstead, who served 3 1/2 years in prison for selling drugs. After his release in 2008, he enrolled in construction school and found his first job with ABBA's help working at a site in Garden City. He later worked on the recently completed Twin Oaks Apartments project on Manor Avenue in Hempstead and now is a supervisor for the Metro 303 apartment development on Main Street.

"I grew up hustling, but after a while you get tired of it," said Hill, who provides for a 7-year-old son in Virginia. "Now, I am a better person and I get more respect from the community."

The Twin Oaks Apartments and Metro 303 developers said they were pleased with the quality of ABBA's employees.

"I am a firm believer that people are deserving of second chances," Donald Monti, chief executive of Renaissance Downtowns, master developer of the downtown redevelopment project, said about working with ABBA, or Able Bodies of Believer's Alliance.

In order to continue the work, Benjamin said his organization -- which he said has a budget of about $10,000 a month -- needs at least $135,000 annually to hire three employees, secure office space and cover other expenses. Hall said the village would try to help.

"We have done this without local, state or federal funding," said Benjamin, adding most of his support comes from local churches. "For us to go forward, we need funding."

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By the numbers

About ABBA's job placement program:

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Total employed since June 2011: 128

Percent with criminal histories: 98

Percent Hempstead Village residents: 90

Total work sites placed at: 12

Placed at Metro 303 site: 53

Placed at Twin Oaks Apartments: 27

Additional applicants seeking work: 228

Source: ABBA Leadership Center

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