Three volunteer business counselors from Norwalk's SCORE office have been going to prison every Tuesday for the past month.
No, it's not a reverse work release program, but rather an opportunity to bring their business expertise to a group of prisoners who are about to be released themselves.
SCORE was approached by Diana Dunaway, a ReEntry Coordinator with the North Coast Correctional Treatment Facility, a minimum-security institution operated by Management & Training Corp. in Grafton with the mission of reducing recidivism and increasing the success of prisoners' re-entry into society.
Dunaway wanted SCORE to work with a group of 38 men who are approaching release and are interested in owning and operating businesses.
Ted Mahl, Norwalk's lead SCORE counselor, readily agreed and began preparing for the four hour-long sessions. Mahl was joined by fellow counselors Bill Walker and Ed Franklin in leading the sessions, which have included Setting Up a Business, Writing a Business Plan, Marketing Your Business and Arranging for Financing.
To their surprise, the counselors identified a number of attendees who either owned a business before going to prison or were still running their business while in prison, with the help of dedicated employees.
The SCORE counselors were impressed by the energy and enthusiasm brought by the prisoners to the classes. When computer glitches delayed a PowerPoint presentation one evening, the class turned into a 90-minute question and answer session.
Some of the questions that SCORE is helping to answer include whether convicted felons can obtain government-funded loans or bid on government contracts, as well as other concerns that could make or break a business trying to get started.
But for the most part, the questions raised are identical to those faced by any other entrepreneur. SCORE found that the prisoners were perhaps even more eager than some of their other clients to put the effort into creating a business plan.
While the prisoners don't have Internet access, they still did their homework faithfully, working on solving business problems presented to them by SCORE.
Attendees had to register for the class with Dunaway, and by attending regularly and on time, they received certificate of completion.
According to counselor Ed Franklin, students have greatly appreciated the sense of normalcy that SCORE brings to the sessions.
Franklin said that one attendee told him how much the group appreciated not being called "inmates" and the fact that the SCORE counselors have treated them as if they weren't in prison.
Mahl and Walker agree that the men in the class are some of the politest people they've met. "That skill will come in handy upon their release," said Mahl, who can see that the prisoners are acutely aware of the difficulties they will face.
While workforce re-entry programs do exist - locally, one is operated by the Huron County Department of Job & Family Services - it is still difficult for ex-offenders to find a quality job.
The SCORE team is hoping that their efforts will bear fruit and help some of their students start business for themselves.
For more information about the SCORE program, or to set up a business counseling appointment, call the Norwalk office at (419) 668-4867, ext. 3446.
Bethany Dentler is the economic development director for the Norwalk Economic Development Corp. She can be reached by phone at (419) 668-9858 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.