Bryan Barajas dreams of becoming a journeyman, buying a little home in Pasadena and building a family there.
It’s the first time he’s dreamt in a long time, since dropping out of school in the 9th grade when he had a son, trying to find work, but then embarking on a life that would send him to prison by 2015, facing multiple felonies. Upon exiting, he knew he’d have trouble staying sober and out of trouble, never finding decently paid work with his background record. But he had heard of the Flintridge Center, a nonprofit dedicated to helping combat poverty, community violence and formerly incarcerated individuals.
Today, his dreams are tangible. Recently graduated from the Flintridge Center’s Apprenticeship Preparation Program, Barajas is working his first full-time, union-backed job with Caston Inc. as a first-period apprentice carpenter.
“I love it; I give it my all every day,” said Barajas at a recent graduation ceremony for a Flintridge Center apprenticeship class, where he was a guest speaker. “Coming to Flintridge has absolutely changed my life. Everyone here honestly cares about you.”
When he first approached the center after being released from prison, he was just trying to find a job that didn’t require a high school diploma or a GED.
“They signed me up right away to take GED classes, and honestly, I didn’t think I’d ever pass. It was like a different language, trying to read that stuff,” he recalled.
But Barajas kept at it, studying hard, and surprised himself by passing the first time around.
With a new wind of confidence, Barajas took the 12-week apprenticeship course through the center and landed a job shortly after graduation, persisting at interviews, showing up first to a job site with his lunch box and tools and sheer determination.
The Flintridge Center serves about 500 people a year to start anew through its Reintegration Network, helping formerly incarcerated individuals reintegrate into the community through a program that includes providing case management services, a union-approved curriculum, life-skills training focused on recovering from trauma and employment training. The program focuses on preparing students for union construction careers, which provide a livable wage, health benefits for the entire family, pension plan, and most important, unions that don’t discriminate against people for having a criminal background. Job choices within the trades include carpentry, construction and painting, sheet metal and electrical work.
“Community members returning from incarceration face insurmountable barriers and without some assistance, it makes it very likely that they’ll re-offend,” said Flintridge Center President and Founder Jaylene Moseley. “We believe if community members have opportunities, they will seize those and make different choices.”
Flintridge Center began some 30 years ago as the Flintridge Foundation, created through the estates of Francis and Louisa Moseley, whose four children became the founding directors, making grants in four key areas — environmental conservation, theater, visual arts and community services.
The foundation was set to sunset in 2007, but realizing it would leave deep service gaps locally, the remaining assets were used to form Flintridge Center, a nonprofit that would focus on breaking the cycle of poverty and violence in the original target communities of Northwest Pasadena and West Altadena.
Flintridge has become increasingly involved in efforts to address persistent community disparities and reduce community violence. It focuses on high-risk, gang-impacted youth on the verge of dropping out of school and previously incarcerated adults who need a second chance. The apprenticeship program alone is offered with support from the L.A./Orange County Building and Construction Trades Council.
The center now works with more than 50 agencies and nonprofits to offer full-spectrum services, including mental health help, substance abuse assistance and trauma treatment. These services are vital to addressing the whole person, and helps to guarantee success, according to Jeffrey Bellissimo, a program specialist at Flintridge Center who helps lead apprenticeship classes.
“We know that 95% of people who go to prison have been traumatized growing up; and if they weren’t before going to prison they certainly are by the time they get out,” Bellissimo said. “The life skills classes help them become the best person they can be … we give them the opportunity to establish a new identity. It’s an opportunity for someone to come out of prison and really thrive, instead of just survive, which is pretty much what our community members have been trying to do their entire lives.”
At the center’s most recent graduation ceremony, a packed room of family and friends cheered on the 22 graduates as Daniel Torres, a Flintridge Center strategic partnership specialist, spoke some personalized words about every graduate as they accepted the diplomas, infused with a lot of humor.
“We don’t have a magic wand. We can’t tap you on your head and make you be happy for the rest of your life. But with a lot of hard work, you can move forward,” he told the graduates.
Later, Torres reflected on his passion for teaching the students, noting that he also changed his life at Flintridge Center after spending more than half his life in juvenile detention and then prison. His father was in prison for 20 years, and Torres grew up in the foster care system. “Yeah, imagine juvenile care being safer than my home,” he noted, but then was arrested continuously and convicted of a felony at age 19.
Upon release, he faced “denial and discrimination around every corner” for having a criminal record, unable to find steady employment. He was desperate and hopeless, he said, when he found the Flintridge Center.
“Lack of opportunity to provide for your basic needs is the No. 1 reason people re-offend,” he said. “To continuously punish someone for a mistake they made after they’ve done their punishment is just not right. I have children, and you would never do that to a child.
“The way I changed my life was here — they were the only people to give me an opportunity when I needed it most. It was absolutely empowering to me and now I get to do that for other people. I’ll be doing this until the wheels fall off,” said Torres, who advocates for foster care children and also for bills like AB1008 — which reduces employment barriers for people with criminal records. He said he wants to become more active in developing ways to maintain sustainable funding for the center and the population it serves.
“The people we serve are misunderstood … it’s not about what is wrong with them; it’s about what has happened to them. These are individuals who are highly traumatized; when we start treating them as such, real change starts to happen,” he said.
Today, Flintridge Center operates with a budget of $1.5 million, which it raises yearly through grants, federal and state funding, and donations. With a staff of 14 and a volunteer program of about 50, the center is able to offer a full continuum of services through community alliances, including the California Workforce Development Board, city of Pasadena, Pasadena Unified School District, Chamber of Commerce and local law enforcement.
“We work very closely with the police department; the police are a very strong supporter of our reintegration program. The police chief often says that we cannot ‘incarcerate our way out of the problem,’” said Moseley, who was named earlier this year as the 41st Assembly District’s Woman of the Year for her work at Flintridge Center. “I don’t think I would have had the courage early on to think that I could help play a role in changing these circumstances, but by working with community partners I’ve come to see that if we all work together, we can do this. We really can reduce poverty and violence.”
It’s also helping people reach their dreams, reunite with their families and be contributing, tax-paying community members.
Barajas’s goal of becoming a journeyman is fitting, given the journey he’s been on to get this far.
“The hardest part of getting here were my own restrictions. I thought I’d never be able to get a job or do anything with myself because of my record and not graduating high school,” he said. “But the reality is none of that stopped me, and I’ve accomplished it all here. I’m not starting over but I’m starting a new chapter. I owe it all to the center.”
To donate to the Flintridge Center and their supportive services, including for youths in high-risk circumstances, go to Flintridge.org and click the Donate Now tab.