Workforce Foundation

Employer partnerships deliver big win for construction industry

DANNY CARRAO AND KAREN CHUNG - Workforce Foundation

Danny and Karen (1)

Danny Carrao is the founder of the Workforce Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing opportunities for the formerly incarcerated, empowering them and making successful reintegration possible. Danny’s interest in serving the formerly incarcerated was motivated by his faith when he began volunteering with a prison ministry. His mission to serve snowballed from there. Today, the Workforce Foundations runs programs for employment assistance; mentoring and coaching; educational resources; and employer partnerships.

Karen Chung is the executive director of the Workforce Foundation. She joined the foundation’s team in 2019. After being convicted and serving time for a felony offense in Minnesota, Karen came to Washington in search of new professional opportunities after barriers to employment prevented her from continuing her work as a mental health professional. She found her place at the Workforce Foundation and brings a personal perspective on incarceration to the daily operations of the organization.

We caught up with Danny and Karen to see how they’ve been doing, talk about the importance of their work and how ABC of Western Washington (ABCWW) has supported their mission.

Tell us how you both first started on this journey trying to fix the opportunity gap for formerly incarcerated? 

Danny: I started the Workforce Foundation in response to my faith. Through my local church, I started working with people who were incarcerated. I saw the hopelessness that a lot of the men felt, they didn’t feel like they would be supported in getting a job when released and they didn’t believe there would be any opportunities for them to reintegrate. That’s what moved me to start the foundation, and it grew from there. We connected with one of ABCWW’s members, VanWell Masonry, because they showed interest in hiring the formerly incarcerated and having people come through work release – they actually hired our first client.

Karen: When I first moved to Washington, it just started with Danny helping me find employment. But when Danny started looking for someone to fill the executive director position, we had a conversation and I was eager to bring my personal experience to the organization and give back to the community.

How would you describe the mission of the foundation?

Karen: We want to connect with the formerly incarcerated to provide support and social capital to empower them to live whatever life they choose to live. We don’t want to dictate what their life has to look like, we want to give them the tools and the skills they can use to build the life that is meaningful for them. One of the huge factors in my own success were the relationships and being able to reconnect with community. We are like a family here and we want to build a community of support, so that our people feel empowered to create goals and take steps towards those goals while feeling like there's a safety net of people behind them.

Danny: I would add that, from my perspective, the number one thing that I see us doing is providing hope and optimism for our clients when not a lot of people do. The biggest thing that I saw when folks were being released, was that they had very few people in their corner and some had none – families might have abandoned them, friends scattered to the wind. I was often the only one sending them birthday cards or contacting them when they were released. We open doors to employment, of course, but without the element of hope we wouldn’t be able to get anywhere with what we do.

What’s been the value of your partnership with ABCWW and where did that begin?

Danny: I didn’t know about ABCWW when I first started working with our first employment partner. They had a marketing person there, and I asked how to get to know hundreds of other companies just like them. She pointed me to ABCWW. We were very new and had just recently incorporated. I simply sent an email to Wendy Novak out of the blue introducing myself and the foundation – she wrote back immediately, eager to hear more about us and embraced it wholeheartedly. Through her we have received a ton of support.

ABCWW has provided us with introductions to other organizations and employers, they’ve publicized our work and built awareness around our programs. ABCWW has truly been a supporter. Today, we have two ABCWW-related people on our board of directors – Wendy and Tim Carpenter. We wouldn’t be where we are today without their help.

How has your partnership with ABCWW opened the doors to employment for the formerly incarcerated?

Karen: ABCWW and the people involved with the organization have been so amazing in connecting our clients to real opportunities. They’re willing to reach out to them and to meet them. When I speak to some of ABCWW’s members, I can feel how excited they are to work with us and interested in learning more about the barriers our people face. Some employers in the industry say they’re willing to hire, but they have a series of requirements or expectations that create barriers. I haven’t run into that with ABCWW members. They’re willing to meet people where they’re at. There’s this immediate sense of inclusion and I tell our clients, when I point them to ABCWW members, that they are amazing to work for and that they can put aside a lot of their fears because those companies are truly interested in who the person in front of them is.

Danny: I’ll add that ABCWW has been very proactive in asking people to reboot their preconceptions of the formerly incarcerated. That’s often the biggest barrier. We run into situations where people have this idea of what a formerly incarcerated person is or looks like – whatever the stereotype. But these are real people with real stories, and Wendy has allowed us to tell that story and validated us.

What does it feel like to see your work have an impact on someone’s life?

Karen: It feels amazing. But I also know that everyone’s capable of this sort of success. So, when I see on of ours succeeding, I say ‘I knew you could do that’ because people succeeding after incarceration should be the norm. Everyone has the skills to succeed but they just need that extra help and the opportunity to flourish.

Danny: There’s definitely no better feeling in the world than knowing somebody we’ve supported has succeeded and achieved their goals. The national recidivism rate is 75% within five years, so three of every four people released from prison commit a new offense within five years. We’ve been in operation for nearly three years and our recidivism rate is zero. Not one of our clients has reoffended. So that’s what drives us. In the end, our clients are the real heroes. We’re just opening doors on our end, but they are the ones doing the hard work and pushing through.

I often think back to our first client. He invited me over to his house to meet his family, a big Eastern-European family. An aunt of his came up to me and hugged me. She told me, ‘Thank you for giving us our boy back.’ There is no better feeling in the world.

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