CINCINNATI — Cami Lawson-Moody has always been a Christian. She was even married to a minister before an addiction to prescription pills took her life in another direction.
But it wasn't until she got clean and started working at Nehemiah Manufacturing that Lawson-Moody said she truly found God.
"It's more so because of the living God," she told me as she wiped away tears. "It's the testimony of what you sow, you reap in the garden. If the gardener gives a good environment, you're going to grow and flourish. I hear that, and that's what it is. They give us a chance to grow and be who we are. And I'm truly grateful for that."
Nehemiah's garden is filled with second chances for people with criminal records who have struggled to find stable jobs elsewhere. And while it makes CEO Dan Meyer feel good that his small manufacturing company is making such a difference for people like Lawson-Moody, the policy also has been good for Nehemiah's bottom line.
After fewer than seven years in business, the company has about $50 million in annual sales and 110 employees — many of whom have felony convictions that have made it difficult for them to get jobs elsewhere.
That success inspired Meyer to launch the Beacon of Hope Business Alliance last year to encourage other businesses to open up their hiring policies to people with felony convictions who often are passed over for jobs because of their criminal convictions.
The alliance has invited CEOs and business owners to a breakfast event Friday called Employing Mercy at the Cincinnati Museum Center. Called Employing Mercy, the breakfast is sponsored by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Xavier University and Lawn Life.
I met with Meyer earlier this week to discuss the event, and I spoke with four of Nehemiah's employees about what their jobs at the company have meant to them.
'They Really See Our Gifts'
Cami Lawson-Moody was one of those employees.
These days, she runs the front desk at Nehemiah and handles phone calls from consumers who have questions about the company's products.
She's the face and voice of the Queensgate company for most people who walk through the door or call on the phone.
But before she started working at Nehemiah a couple years ago, she was timid and insecure. She had come to Cincinnati for a recovery program to get past her addiction to prescription pills. She desperately wanted a job. But she had a felony conviction on her record because she got caught changing the date on one of her prescriptions. And, because of that, nobody would hire her.
She started at Nehemiah on the production floor, but was quickly promoted to working the front desk and then, later, taking consumer calls.
"They've allowed me to grow in my position," she told me. "They really see our gifts, and they let us use them as we develop them."
'I Couldn't Be Happier'
Michael Taylor talked to me next.
I had interviewed him last year for the first story I wrote about the Beacon of Hope Business Alliance. Back then, he was a production planner for the company after working his way up from the production floor. But since last June, Taylor already has been promoted again to operations manager.
That makes seven promotions since he started at Nehemiah a little more than four years ago.
Taylor has a felony record and a history of alcoholism and heroin addiction. He spent eight months in jail and wanted to turn his life around after he got out. He worked through a temporary agency where he had applied before he had a felony and soon fell into a pattern. He would impress the companies where he was working, and they would talk about hiring him for a permanent position. But then the background check would come back, and Taylor would be asked to leave.
At one job, he was escorted off the property by two armed security guards.
"It was so deflating, so depressing," he said. "When you feel like a failure and everybody treats you like a failure, it's very hard to get yourself out of that hole."
That all changed when he got hired at Nehemiah. There, Taylor quickly became a trusted employee. He met the woman he will marry. He rebuilt his life.
"I used to think that Nehemiah helped me become the man I wanted to be," Taylor told me. "Now I say that Nehemiah helped me become the man I didn’t know I could be. I didn't know I could be the person I am today. I couldn't be happier."
'I Felt Part of Something Great'
Stephanie Miku is a line captain for Nehemiah's manufacturing operation. She's been at the company almost three years now, and she credits the job for changing her life.
A native of Columbus, Miku ended up at a halfway house in Cincinnati after her second term in prison.
A lady at the halfway house told her that Nehemiah might hire her, despite her felony convictions. Mike was hesitant.
"I'd never really done factory work," she told me. "I had mostly done bartending or waitressing."
She went to Nehemiah one Friday in June, and the company was having a cookout for employees.
"It was a warm, loving place," she said. "I felt part of something great. After a week or two, I just knew that this was the place for me. I felt like it was something good going on here."
The company wasn't worried about her felony convictions for drug possession or her history using drugs. At Nehemiah, it was all about her work and dedication.
"When I look in the mirror now, the less I see is the old me," she said. "Now I can look in the mirror with a little more acceptance and confidence."
'I Have No Worries Now'
Earman Mitchell was the newest Nehemiah employee to talk with me. He's only been at the company for about 10 months. But he's already a production/assistant warehouse manager.
Mitchell has spent time in prison for gang-related activity. He was determined to get a job at Nehemiah because a friend with a similar background worked there and told him about the company.
But after he got the job, he was nervous.
"I thought everybody would look at me," he said. "I thought everybody would be intimidated of me and my background. But everybody was so down to earth."
Mitchell found himself smiling, making new friends and opening up to people in ways he never had.
"I feel safe when I go outside now," he said. "The lifestyle I lived, anything could have happened to me at any moment. I have no worries now. Nobody's looking for me. And I don't have to go looking for anybody."
Maybe most importantly, Mitchell can now look his mother in the eye.
"It had been a long time since my mom said she was proud of me," Mitchell told me his eyes welling with tears. "For her to say that last year, it meant a lot."
Mitchell's testimony — and it certainly felt like he was offering testimony — brought Meyer and his co-workers to tears.
That's when Lawson-Moody explained how she found God at Nehemiah — the living God.
Nehemiah is changing lives, and Meyer believes the company is proof that businesses can do that without sacrificing profit.
He's hoping that local CEOs and business owners at Friday's event will pledge to create 500 new "second chance" jobs for people with criminal records.
It wouldn't be enough for all the nearly 2,000 people who are released from prisons into Hamilton County each year. But it sure would be a good start.
CEOs and business owners can register for the May 13 Employing Mercy breakfast event here.
For more information about Beacon of Hope Business Alliance, click here.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO.