Share story

When Vicky Villalobos was sentenced in 2008 to federal prison after a drug conviction, she didn’t worry about the three years and eight months she would spend behind bars.

She worried about what would happen when she was released.

“I was scared I wasn’t going to be able to get a job in the real world,” Villalobos, 37, said. “I asked, ‘What am I going to do?’ ”

Then another inmate told her about Seattle’s Pioneer Human Services, which offers programs for people who are re-entering society from prison or jail, or those who are overcoming chemical addiction and a mental disability.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

When Villalobos was released, she moved into the Pioneer Fellowship House Residential Re-entry Center in Seattle and landed a job at the Pioneer Industries manufacturing plant, a precision sheet-metal fabrication and machining shop owned by Pioneer Human Services.

Now she has a new place to live and a steady job.

Pioneer Human Services will be able to expand its job-training program after the U.S. Department of Labor earlier this year awarded the agency a $1.17 million grant. It was among 16 prisoner re-entry programs across the country to receive a total of $20 million.

Pioneer Human Services was founded in 1963 as a halfway house. Fifty years later, it operates 10 of the 16 state’s work-release programs through contracts with the state Department of Corrections.

Approximately 2,900 people receive some type of service from Pioneer, including counseling and treatment, housing, job training and employment and supervision and reintegration at nearly 60 locations across Washington every day. Pioneer-owned businesses employ former inmates in jobs in manufacturing, food services and construction. All programs are self-funding.

Pioneer has evolved to address the multiple ways incarceration changes a person, according to CEO Karen Lee.

Former inmates aren’t used to making decisions because they were made for them while they were behind bars. Many feel shunned by society, she said.

And in a tough economy, it’s difficult for former offenders to compete for jobs, Lee said.

The Department of Labor grant will allow Pioneer to expand its “Roadmap to Success” program, a development course focusing on “soft skills” such as résumé writing, mock interviews and how felons should address their backgrounds when looking for a job. About 20 students come through the program every six weeks, and Pioneer will now be able to offer two classes at a time instead of one.

Abram Potts, who was imprisoned for 17 years for robbery, didn’t know where to look for a job, or how much information a potential employer could ask during an interview.

He went through the “Roadmap to Success” program, then enrolled in the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee, he said, to be able to work anywhere in the world.

“I have so many options now, it’s endless for what I can do,” said Potts, 34. “I have a chance for success.”

Clients are paid during occupational training. Lee remembers one woman who started crying when she received her first check.

“She said it was the first legal check she had ever received,” Lee said. “She was older than 40.”

Pioneer employs more than 430 adults with a criminal history or past addiction issues. Pioneer Industries manufactures a variety of products for aerospace and commercial industries. Last year, Pioneer shipped more than 1.7 million parts to customers, including Boeing.

Villalobos works in shipping and receiving for a Pioneer Human Services manufacturing company, and plans to stay employed, and out of prison. Near her area, other employees worked on a piece of sheet metal that will later become part of an escape door of an aircraft.

“We all get along,” Villalobos said of her co-workers. “No one judges us here. Society judges us, but we have the same skills as other people, and work as hard as everyone else. We need a push, and that’s what Pioneer gives us.”

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.