PEORIA— As he stood in front of a group of men looking to join his company, Ron Valle wasn’t messing around.

“How many of you been in prison?” he asked them.

One reluctantly raised his hand. Valle waited. “Come on,” he said jokingly, gesturing at them. Slowly, other hands crept into the air.

Their reluctance is understandable. All of the men were looking to enter Central Illinois Awning’s job training program, and employers have traditionally been reluctant to hire ex-convicts. This stigma is slowly changing: recent studies show that companies are increasingly willing to hire previously incarcerated workers, due to increased education and monetary incentives, such as federal tax credit.

But research still shows that nearly half of ex-prisoners have no reported earnings in the several years after their release. For those that do, many are not making a livable wage. Moreover, almost half of prisoners that are released end up returning to prison — a fact that is linked to the lack of job opportunities once they get out.

Ron Valle and his work partner, John Wright, seek to change this. Valle works with Helping Hand Resource Center, a Peoria not-for-profit started by Wright in 2013. Helping Hand provides job placement and job training, and currently coordinates the employment of 287 people, 60% of whom work full-time. However, in their work with the not-for-profit, Valle and Wright realized that their clients were missing out on higher paying jobs.

“There were specialized fields that we weren’t touching base on,” said Valle. “Even though we were getting our guys trained on them, we weren’t able to get them employed into certain areas.” These included welding and industrial sewing, which often pay $15 to $25 an hour.

Valle put this down to the stigma surrounding the hiring of ex-convicts. “We felt we need to set an example to the community,” he said.

So in February 2019, he and Wright created Central Illinois Awning. They saw it as a lucrative opportunity that would provide the certainty of job placement for the people they work with, while also helping to  help fund Helping Hand Resource Center operations. Wright and Valle wanted to show ex-convicts seeking work that there are jobs available, and they wanted to break the stigma by showing that there are skilled and motivated individuals coming out of prison.

Valle explained the process of the job training program to the five men attending initiation.

“We don’t elevate you with grades,” he told them. “What we’re going to do is, we’re going to support you.”

The program is nine months long, and includes a job with a livable wage, training on-site, readiness classes such as conflict resolution, and technical training.

“I’m just thankful,” said John Farmer, one of the men in attendance. “It’s a step, it’s gonna put me in the right direction and get me ready.”

Steve Murray, another attendee, added that the actual process of finding a job motivated him, even if it wasn’t the job he wanted. Particularly if it wasn’t a job he wanted, he added, because “it helps me want more.”

“You strive a little harder, and a little more, and you find what you want,” he continued.

Since opening, Central Illinois Awning has 12 employees, and its gross income is $600,000 and climbing. The timing to start the awning company was opportune, as February 2019 was also when Peoria Tent and Awning, the county’s only awning company, went out of business. As a result, the company is not short of clients, and is now increasingly working on bigger commercial projects.

Jason Villarreal, a current employee who works on sewing, installing, and welding, likes how the work is always different. “No awning is ever the same,” he said. “It doesn’t turn into a routine, where you’re getting tired of it.”

Joshua Patterson, a seamster who has been at the awning company for six months, loves his job. His favorite part is “just coming to work, period, because of the atmosphere. It’s a family atmosphere.”