From prisoner to influencer: Tony’s story

From prisoner to influencer: Tony’s story

From prisoner to influencer: Tony’s story

The day that Tony Kitchens was released from prison in 1985, he did an unusual thing: He got down on the ground and created a fake “snow angel” on the grass.

“I was elated, but nervous. Free, but I didn’t know anything. The sun was very bright. Red was very red, green was very green,” Tony recalls.

Tony faced significant struggles early in his life. He grew up in segregation-era rural Georgia and Atlanta, in neighborhoods riddled with drugs and crime. His dad was an alcoholic and abused his mom.

Tony was incarcerated as a teenager for 12 years. After his release in 1985, he knew he had a choice to make—follow a path that would lead him back to prison, or make the hard choices that would provide him with a future.

For Tony, the choice was simple: “I knew one thing: Even if I had to sleep in a gutter, I wasn’t going back to prison.”

That’s not to say the road wasn’t challenging. Far from it, in fact.


Digging out after incarceration

At the time, Tony had no job, no formal training, and no education. He didn’t know how to communicate appropriately, and he suffered from feeling like an outsider all the time. He looked for a job, but his criminal record was a huge roadblock.

The big difference came when an employer took a chance on Tony and hired him at a service station pumping gas. The pay was just $5 an hour, and his commute was two hours by bus. But Tony didn’t mind—he was moving forward.

“I was always grateful for the small things, because I know what it was like to have nothing at all. I don’t complain about jobs,” says Tony.


A life transformed

Soon, Tony began to climb the economic ladder, pursuing an education and eventually earning a bachelor’s degree. Another monumental change came in his life when he married and had his son.

“Up to then, I would smoke two packs of cigarettes today. I decided to quit then and there and focus my life on someone other than myself,” Tony says. “That’s when I came to realize the more I focused on other people, the better I felt. I began to understand that everything wasn’t about me.”

Today, Tony has dedicated his life to helping other men and women, just like him, transition to a fulfilling life after prison. He is Field Director for Georgia for Prison Fellowship, and formerly served as a Prison In-Reach Specialist for the Georgia government.

And we’re thrilled to report that Tony recently joined our board of directors here at the Georgia Center for Opportunity.

From prisoner to influencer. And the key driver was a job.


Celebrating work

We’re celebrating the life-transforming power of work all during the month of October. Our groundbreaking, community-driven program Hiring Well, Doing Good offers a unique solution to chronic unemployment across Georgia. Learn more.

As Tony often shares, “I keep all my possibilities on my windshield and my prison experience in the rearview mirror. If you’re always looking in the rearview mirror, you’re going to run into something. In the end, I know that if my prison experience didn’t kill me then, no matter what I face today, I know it won’t kill me.”

Breakthrough 2019 – Outcome-Focused Programs & Measuring Success

Breakthrough 2019 – Outcome-Focused Programs & Measuring Success

Breakthrough 2019 – Outcome-Focused Programs & Measuring Success

What works and what doesn’t? That’s a basic but important question for community nonprofits to address. But more times than not, we tend to launch off hunches. We think we know what works, but we don’t know, with quantifiable data points to back it up.

At Breakthrough 2019, we were honored to hear from Heather Reynolds, who heads up Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO). LEO is dedicated to finding and replicating the best poverty-reducing nonprofits in America, with a specific focus on evidence-based practices. Watch the video for more.

Breakthrough 2019 – What Makes Communities Thrive?

Breakthrough 2019 – What Makes Communities Thrive?

Breakthrough 2019 – What Makes Communities Thrive?

American civil society is broken. So many Americans live fragmented lives, disconnected from the institutions and associations that once characterized American life and brought people of all economic classes together—everything from churches and synagogues to rotary clubs and bowling leagues. Today, so many Americans—particularly from the poor and working class—face life alone.

But what can be done to change that dynamic?

Defining Social Capital
Tim Carney, best-selling author of the new book Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, shared some solutions during a keynote Q&A at Breakthrough 2019.

The problem of alienation in America extends far beyond economics—as crucial as economics are. The problems are deeply social and relational. “It’s a lack of belonging, but it’s more than that. People are disconnected and they don’t even see the point of being connected in the first place,” Tim shared.

Community Solutions
The solution? It must come locally and through individual lives. This admonition from Tim was the perfect setup for what we heard the rest of the day during Breakthrough—from local, on-the-ground organizations in Atlanta and across Georgia that are renewing civil society one life at a time.

Check back soon for more video content from Breakthrough 2019!

Breakthrough 2019 – Creating Conditions For Change

Breakthrough 2019 – Creating Conditions For Change

Breakthrough 2019 – Creating Conditions For Change

“The secret is in the soil.” 

That’s how Georgia Center for Opportunity President and CEO Randy Hicks opened Breakthrough 2019.

Randy shared the story of how Moses Coleman discovered Vidalia onions purely by accident in 1931. These onions can only be grown in a 20-county region in southeast Georgia where the soil conditions are perfect.

Randy speaking at BreakthroughRandy encouraged Breakthrough attendees to consider a different kind of soil: “The conditions of our homes and our communities.”

“It’s easy and important for us to be very aware of Georgia’s macro issues—statewide economic numbers, student performance, and criminal justice issues,” Randy said. “But we can’t just look at those issues and not consider the conditions that often have more to do with our well-being than anything else. That’s the soil.”

Watch the video and then check back soon for more content from Breakthrough 2019!

Breakthrough 2019’s Education Panel – Building Student Networks

Breakthrough 2019’s Education Panel – Building Student Networks

Breakthrough 2019’s Education Panel – Building Student Networks

The first step in the Success Sequence is to get a good education. On Wednesday, September 11, attendees at Breakthrough 2019 heard from an outstanding panel describing how schooling is key to expanding opportunities for the impoverished in Atlanta and across Georgia.

Philip Ross of Bright Futures Academy speaking at Breakthrough 2019Philip Ross, of Bright Futures Academy, shared with us how he serves his 80 students in one of the most crime-ridden zip codes in the nation. Beyond the basics of a sound education, the goal is to prepare students for the workforce with solid soft skills. “The practical life skills are paramount to success for these young people. If you don’t know how to dress for an interview, shake a hand, and carry on a conversation with a peer in the workplace, you are not going to climb the ladder. You might not even get on the ladder,” Philip said.

Ana Rector, of Youth Entrepreneurs, shared an exciting statistic: 30 percent of her graduates go on to start businesses of their own and employ others. Her organization’s chief goal is to encourage students to think entrepreneurial—even if they don’t launch a business, that type of thinking will benefit them and their future employers. “Most of our magic happens outside of the classroom—that’s where we believe students learn and thrive, and they really figure out where they fit in the world,” Ana said.

Jim Hollinsworth, of the Path Project, noted that since his organization’s founding in 2010, the graduation rate in the troubled neighborhoods they serve has jumped from 45 percent to 90 percent. “The biggest challenge we see for students to graduate is simply having people who believe in them,” Jim shared.

There is a lot more about Breakthrough 2019 yet to come. Stay tuned for more videos and recaps in the near future. And be sure to sign up for our newsletter to get updates as they become available.