Society always says people deserve a second chance once they’ve served their time and paid their debt to society, but who will provide the opportunities to the formerly incarcerated? And as much as society claims to appreciate veterans for their service in the Armed Forces, far too many return home with little to look forward to.
One man is trying to change this reality. Rocky McKay — also known as Rocky the Roofer — started an organization in 2010 called The Operation Organization Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Operation Reset, an initiative of this unique organization, is designed to provide training, skills, education assistance and confidence-building to returning citizens, including veterans, nonviolent ex-offenders and homeless individuals looking for a second chance. Operation Reset is reducing recidivism and homelessness, and as the group says, reaching out “to those that have been told ‘NO’ for so long due to their backgrounds, poor decision making, lack of work experience, or simply because they’re homeless.”
Recently, Atlanta Black Star spoke with McKay, who is originally from Long Island, New York and runs RTR Consulting, an Atlanta-based roofing business. McKay is many things — a successful businessman, a preacher’s son and an Army brat who lived overseas in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. And he married at the age of 19, had his first child and started out as a roof laborer to support his family. His decision to spearhead Operation Reset came as a result of his own encounter with the justice system.
“I can say that the Operation Organization and the Operation Restart program came through a personal experience of mine, where I found myself getting locked up one day. Just being hardheaded and going through something — some minor crap as far as going to jail and getting locked up,” he shared.
“And when I went there I thought I was getting out. I knew that the offenses weren’t bad at all. It just needed to be worked out of the court system, obviously. I was locked up for 90 days,” he said, noting that he has no felony record as a result of the jail experience.
Nonetheless, being in jail changed his life and perspective.
“What I was able to identify with was that, here are some people that I’m with, and in jail there are no designer outfits, and everyone is the same, and you’re just a number, if not anything else,” McKay said.
“Here’s a circle of people that I look at and I stay far away from, or basically drove past without acknowledging — not understanding their life, not understanding their struggles, just knowing that being in and out of jail, I shunned these type of people,” he said, reflecting on his prior perceptions of the incarcerated.
“And when I went to jail for that short spell, I learned a lot. You know there are fathers, there are mothers, there are people in jail that truly shouldn’t be there. And it may sound a little weird for someone to say that, but I’ve met people that have done little crime and get hit with a lot of time. I’ve seen people that have done the crime, admitted it and get almost no time. And part of that was an education for me, because here is a set of people that I shunned, not understanding anything about them.”
But things changed for McKay when he found himself in the same state as others he once disregarded.
“And when put into a situation such as being locked up, your dignity stripped and being told what to do, and when to eat, and what to wear and when to shower, and all these different things, you start to reevaluate,” he noted. “Part of the thing I saw was that…these people, some of them just needed some direction. Some of them come from families where the uncle’s a gang banger or this one’s a gang banger, or they’re smart in their own right but they just don’t have the direction, and they didn’t have anyone to give it to them.”
When his court case was resolved, he considered how he could help people and provide opportunities to others. The concept for Operation Reset came when he and his commercial roofing team were covering a contract at a Hyundai plant. One of his workers yelled and told him to come see a busload of men who were being released from prison.
“I saw a bunch of people being transferred from the big house to a halfway house, and they all needed jobs. At that point it touched me in a different way; it wasn’t a joke for me,” he said. “It was my chance to say, ‘I can help you. I can help these people.’ And from that point Operation Reset was born.”
McKay has not regretted his decision to hire these men who were looking for a job.
With over 2 million Americans in prison, the need for a project such as Operation Reset is clear. As the organization notes, 70 million people in America have an arrest record or conviction, according to the National Employment Law Project. People of color are disproportionately represented among the multitude of people touched by the justice system.
Further, men with criminal records comprise over a third of all nonworking men between 25 and 54, as a New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll found. In addition, according to the National Institute of Justice, 60 to 75 percent of the formerly incarcerated are unemployed within a year of their release, and half are less likely to get a callback after disclosing their criminal record. Things are starting to change, a prime example being President Obama’s decision to “ban the box” for federal employees and contractors, removing a hurdle for people with a criminal record seeking employment. But challenges remain.
Meanwhile, as the ex-offenders are returning to society, so, too are the veterans.
“Well for starters, I’m a military brat. And I’ve been exposed to living overseas and all these different things as well,” McKay said.
“A veteran might as well be slapped with a felony, because at the end of the day, he comes home, he fought for his country, he’s developed PTSD. And the next thing you know, he can’t get a job because he’s come home from these conditions of war — being on the front line and fighting for his country — and he feels like he’s been left behind,” he emphasized. “Because he’s gone out and fought for his country, he’s done his time, and he’s come home with these conditions. But at the same time, employers won’t take the risk in hiring these people, and some of them just need skills and need training.”
McKay said many soldiers may have joined the military at an early age — straight out of high school — while others may have been drafted or whatever the case, and they need to acclimate themselves to society.
“We reach out to them, and we just want to give them training, and we just want to put them on the right path,” he said, adding that while the veterans thank him for the opportunity to find jobs, he often thanks them.
Operation Reset is making a difference, with a $5 million savings to the taxpayer, according to the organization’s founder. In addition to his projects in Georgia, Virginia and Florida, McKay plans to take his organization on a national level, with satellite offices in regions throughout the U.S. Moreover, he is reaching out to the business community to provide jobs to returning citizens, and hopes to partner with people in the entertainment industry and anyone who will donate their time or resources.
“One of the things that I look at for the employers is participating in the Operation Reset program and joining hands with the Operation Organization as a whole. I say that because there are employers out there, there is a true need,” McKay said. “It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. What we’re starting to see is that there is a lack of skill set in every industry. And one of the things that is consistent across the board is the employers are saying, ‘We need better help, we can’t find people. How can we find these people?’ ” he added.
“Well the Operation Organization says, hey, partner with us. We don’t care if you’re a baker, we don’t care if you’re IT, we don’t care if you’re an investor. Whatever industry you are, partner with us. Let us become the pipeline. Come in to our facility and help train, or we’ll come to you. We’ll bring these people to you. Let’s train these people, let’s reset them and get them on the right path.”