J. Jondhi Harrell knows how difficult it is trying to re-enter society as an ex-offender. He learned the hard way when he was released from federal prison in September 2009 for armed bank robbery and weapon charges.

As a condition of his release, he went straight into transitional housing, but it was not a good experience for Harrell. 

“That six months were probably more difficult than the prior 18 years that I had spent being incarcerated,” said Harrell who witnessed a system that seemed to be designed to make as much money as possible on those re-entering society.

Harrell had a plan for re-entry and wanted everything he did to coincide with his plan - intentionally learning something every day, making each day a positive experience and creating a meaningful life.

Harrell was determined to enrich his life with art and education by attending art shows and applying to colleges, but was prevented from doing so while he was in the transitional housing program.  While it was difficult to find work as an ex-offender, he did mange to get several job offers, but the housing program rules did not allow him to accept the jobs he was offered.

By late December Harrell was still unemployed and needed to have a job by January 1st, or he would be returned to prison. Through extensive research, he learned about another re-entry program operated through Mayor Nutter's office. Two days before Christmas, his case manager got him an interview with the office’s partner, Goodwill Industries of Southern New Jersey and Philadelphia. He was hired as a Warehouse Worker in the Comcast Division, re-furbishing and re-packaging remote controllers. He also worked in the Dell Reconnect Division.

To show Goodwill his appreciation, Harrell was always willing to help where he could by fundraising and speaking at events. 

“Whatever they needed, I was going to do it because I really appreciated the fact they had assisted me at a time I really needed to be assisted, “said Harrell. “They helped me to come out and lay a foundation for success. That’s a big deal.”

Since completing Goodwill’s program, Harrell has obtained full-time employment at Pathways PA, obtained his Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services Management and is currently working on his Master’s Degree in Social work at Temple University.

He also founded The Center for Returning Citizens (TCRC), a non-profit organization dedicated to helping returning citizens make a smooth transition into freedom by helping them find employment and access to necessary services such as housing, food and clothing.

“We believe that the foundation stone for re-entry is employment. Once you get a job you are able to move towards becoming a citizen again,” said Harrell. “Re-entry is about reconnecting with family and community and finding a place in society where you are going to be stigmatized to a certain level due to your crime, but re-entry can be much smoother if you are allowed to be human again and a job really starts that process.”

It is because of his extraordinary story and work that he was nominated and awarded the Goodwill Industries International’s prestigious Graduate of the Year Award last June.

The award ceremony took place in Grand Rapids, Michigan during a three-day national convention for Goodwill Industries International, Inc. He was accompanied by his father and sister.

Mark Boyd, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Southern New Jersey and Philadelphia, said the mission of Goodwill to help people realize their economic potential regardless of disability or disadvantage felt that Harrell would be a great testament to the Goodwill Movement.

“He was inspirational almost from the day he started,” said Boyd. “He was one of those individuals who was so committed to doing the right thing and making success of his life.”

To speak to Harrell’s commitment to success, Boyd recalled seeing Harrell bring in a suit in tie every day to work, which was considered light industrial work, just in case he was offered a job interview opportunity.

Harrell was one of about 4000 nominees across the country so he didn’t expect to win. He didn’t even tell his family he applied because the odds of him winning were so small.  He described the experience as being similar to buying a lottery ticket by saying “when you buy a lottery ticket, you don’t expect to win. But you buy a ticket because if you don’t buy a ticket then you know you are not going to win.”

He was informed that he won the award about six months ago and couldn’t believe it.

“If you would have put a finger on me, it would have knocked me over and I would have fallen,” said Harrell. “It was totally shocking and I truly never thought I was going to win.”

In addition to a plaque, Harrell was awarded $5,000.

TCRC is currently based in Center City providing case management, employment services and some counseling. The following services will also be offered at the second location that is expected to be in Germantown including individual and group counseling as well as space for other organizations.  For more go to the website tcrcphilly.org.