When Darnell Wood was released from prison a year ago, he immediately started looking for a job.
As the weeks dragged on — two weeks, four weeks, six weeks, Wood was no closer to securing employment.
Staying in a homeless shelter, Wood received letters from staffing agencies telling him that his criminal record made him a poor candidate for jobs. He had served close to 17 years for an armed robbery of a pawn shop.
Feeling despondent and defeated on a warm fall day last September, Wood sat slumped in a chair outside in Little Five Points, and burst into tears and started sobbing.
But then, his luck — and life — started to change.
An acquaintance from the shelter approached Wood, offered a cigarette, and said, If you are looking for a job, all you have to do is go to First Step.
First Step — Staffing for Good — is a local nonprofit staffing agency that helps find jobs for people with “barriers for employment,” which include people who are homeless or without a permanent residence, people who have been incarcerated, and struggling veterans.
Wood walked directly to First Step offices. He passed a drug test on the spot, and started working the very next morning at 7:30 a.m. unloading crates of beer off a delivery truck. He’s been working full time ever since.
This past spring, Wood started working at SunTrust Park, the new home of the Atlanta Braves, in janitorial services. He was recently named employee of the month, and was recently promoted to a supervisor role, which came with a raise and full benefits.
Wood, now 48, is now renting a house in McDonough and plans to buy a car during the coming days.
“This is a dream job,” Wood said on a recent afternoon standing under wispy clouds at SunTrust Park during a afternoon game. “My life has changed 100 percent.”
Wood is one of about 80 employees brought in by First Step who work at every home game at SunTrust Park. They work primarily in janitorial services.
First Step works with over 70 social services organizations, including shelters and the Salvation Army, to help connect with men and women who are struggling and need help to get a job and get back on their feet.
“First Step starts with the belief that individuals who have been homeless in many cases can be good employees and want to contribute and just need the opportunity,” said First Step CEO Dave Shaffer. “That job is very much a dignity thing for the individual and that opportunity is life-changing, and starts there with the job.”
He went on to say, “We move people to the front of the line who are always moved to the back of the line.”
Another way First Step is different from other staffing agencies is the organization provides support services including job training and transportation help, which can be something as simple as having someone help a new employee map out his or her first day on MARTA or providing a ride to a job. First Step also provides counseling to help employees stay motivated or resolve the normal stresses and challenges of a new job that they may not be used to handling.
Wood said First Step helped him obtain a state identification card and a Social Security card, and made sure he saw a doctor for a checkup.
Wood referred to Andrew Roden, an area manager for First Step, as “his coach.” (Roden is also a former employee with the Braves, having worked on the ticket event team and as a ticket sales trainee about six years ago.)
“Andrew was someone I could call when I needed help,” Wood said. “Once I was stranded and I called him and he sent me an Uber, and when I first started my job and had no money for food before I got my first paycheck, he brought me meals.”
And while Wood no longer works for First Step but is now employed by a company that works directly for the Braves and SunTrust Park, he said Roden still calls him occasionally to check in.
During a recent week, 1,035 men and women worked through a job placement with First Step. More than half of the workers are homeless or staying in shelters or transitional housing. Several others are staying with friends and have no permanent residence.
Mike Plant, Braves president of development, said he was happy to see the Braves play a role in helping the community.
“We are passionate about this team, so we are looking for opportunities for people who need a chance in a structured foundation,” Plant said. “We feel good about this, and this is not charity. The people who work these jobs take a lot of pride in these jobs.”
As far as Wood’s success as an employee and recent promotion, Plant said he’s seen Wood’s strong work ethic and professionalism.
“He’s earned this,” Plant said. “He took this opportunity and made something out of it.”
First Step finds jobs in five general categories with warehouse and distribution jobs the most common jobs. Other jobs include hospitality, food processing, commercial printing and commercial restoration.
According to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs’ 2015 Report on Homelessness, there are more than 4,000 homeless people in the city of Atlanta. That doesn’t include those in Atlanta’s surrounding suburbs.
The average wage starts at $9.75 an hour, and employees average 35 hours a week. By comparison, Georgia’s minimum wage is $5.15 an hour, and the federal minimum wage is $7.25. Every employee is drug-tested before the First Step team matches them with a potential employer. They also undergo background checks.
Like other staffing agencies, First Step allows its customer to set the pay rates for their respective jobs and then bills the customer based on a percentage markup. After paying the employee, First Step invests the profits back into the organization to cover the costs of the services.
First Step was founded by Greg Block, an entrepreneur. After selling a consumer products company more than a decade ago, Block met with then-Mayor Shirley Franklin and other local leaders to discuss ideas for starting a new company that would have a social impact and fill a need for the city. Franklin and others stressed homelessness and jobs were pressing issues, which was a spark for this innovative staffing agency.
On a recent afternoon, wearing khaki pants, a polo shirt and a Braves cap, Wood said, “I feel like I am floating. … It’s hard to explain the feeling, but if you are trying to do something with your life, First Step will help you. For me, it’s been a complete transformation.”