Oklahoma Tornado Project
7:30 am
Mon June 30, 2014

Group Hires Ex-Convicts To Rebuild Oklahoma After 2013 Tornadoes

Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. Each year, the state releases roughly 8,000 people from prison, and many of them are looking for work. One organization now hires ex-offenders to help rebuild and restore tornado-struck towns. 

When Reuben Ramirez was released from prison three months ago, it was hard for him to adjust. Ramirez spent a total of seven years behind bars, so getting used to the outside world wasn’t always easy.

“It's been somewhat overwhelming at times just for the simple fact that I'm learning to adapt out here,” Ramirez said.

He knew he needed establish himself as a loyal, hardworking man instead of just an ex-convict. So two months ago, he started working for a non-profit called the Center for Employment Opportunities, or CEO. It’s a national program to help people with criminal records get back on their feet after they serve time by providing employment services.

Pat Viklund is the organization’s Oklahoma City director. He says they had planned on expanding beyond the state's Tulsa office in October or November of last year.

“But when the tornadoes came through in May, we realized that our services could definitely be used to help the city of Moore and the South Oklahoma City community recover from that,” Viklund said.

It was a big task, but it wouldn’t be CEO’s first time assisting cities suffering from severe weather.  

“It was something we had done with Hurricane Sandy in New York, so we were experienced at providing disaster relief, and so we opened up two crews in August of 2013. 

Participants are split between the City of Moore and Habitat for Humanity. They spend 4 days each week clearing debris, planting trees and building houses for tornado victims. Habitat’s Ann Felton says that has been extremely beneficial.

“For us, it's been a godsend because we have an extra pair of hands out there, and they have been building trusses for our houses,” she said.

Those trusses save Habitat for Humanity roughly $1,000 per home.

Mike Johnston is a site supervisor for the Center for Employment Opportunities’ Habitat for Humanity program. For him, assisting tornado survivors has left a lasting impact. He remembers one day when he and his crew were helping pick up debris from a church lawn.

“When we were back there cleaning up, the pastor actually came out to thank us. He had tears in his eyes and he said that we were doing what they were supposed to do. One of my participants stepped up and said, ‘No, sir. You did your part. Now let us do ours,’” he said.

Johnston says this kind of work – the kind that involves helping other people who have lost everything – impacts the CEO participants in a way few other things do.

“There is a connection there. These guys are having to rebuild their lives, and their helping other people rebuild theirs,” Johnston said.

That’s something Reuben Ramirez, the man just released from prison, completely understands. It’s why he enjoys working on the Habitat for Humanity crew.

“It's something that I definitely look forward to, helping others that don't have nowhere else to go, because I know the feeling to not have anything.”

There’s a kinship there, he says. And Ramirez knows that one day, his life will return to normal, just like the lives he has helped rebuild along the way.

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