November 28, 2023
These days, life treats 56-year-old Darren Whitfield well. He’s married to his high school sweetheart, a proud father of two, and thriving in his supervisory carpentry role at Ace Industries. “We just had two trucks go out with $170,000 worth of metal on them. My signature was on that,” he says. “Can you imagine?”
Whitfield was hired as a Carpenter’s Helper in October 2022 through Building Skills NY’s Job Placement and Retention program. Within five months he had earned a promotion and raise. But the peace and stability he enjoys today didn’t come easily.
Whitfield’s journey to steady employment highlights both his own resilience and the critical role that workforce development organizations play in breaking down barriers for job seekers.
“Unfortunately, I’m a survivor,” Whitfield says of his early life. Born in Harlem, he lost both parents young, struggled on and off with substance abuse, and turned to petty crime to make ends meet. Still, he held onto faith that better days lay ahead.
“Once I got to prison,” he says, “my goal was to get out.” Years later, he was faced with a choice that would mark the first step toward those better days: a 20-year prison sentence or rehab. He opted for the latter, eventually enrolling in St. Christopher’s rehab in upstate New York. “For the first time in my life since I was a kid, I felt peace. And I made a decision that I was going to change my life.”
Little by little, Whitfield rebuilt his life. After rehab, he excelled in The Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing & Able program for men with histories of incarceration and housing insecurity. He began to focus in earnest on his personal and professional development. He worked 10 hours a day, sent money home to his family, and secured a sponsor to support his sobriety. “I was just doing the right thing,” he reflects.
But full re-entry into the workforce proved challenging. Whitfield’s work ethic and talent were abundant. Opportunities to channel them were less so.
A brief stint as a janitor at a home goods retailer brought his frustrations to head. After he sold inventory while on duty, the store offered Whitfield a sales role — only to rescind upon completing his background check. “I was hurt,” he says. “I almost went back to the streets.”
Construction seemed to promise a change of luck. A neighbor noted that there were good-paying jobs to be had, and suggested Whitfield pursue his OSHA certification. “There was construction all over, and I said, ‘Yeah… this is it.’”
Henry Street Settlement referred him to Building Skills NY. Barely two months later, Whitfield landed the Ace Industries job that has set him on his current career path. Though he continues to shine in his role, Whitfield is far from complacent.
Now that he has cleared his own hurdles to find meaningful work and a sense of personal security, he aims to help others with similar histories. He has already earned his recovery coach certification and hopes to become a counselor next.
Between full-time work, family life, and studying for his long-term goals, Whitfield has little idle time. He likes it that way. “My fun is sitting at home watching the basketball game now.”