Jenny McDaniel: “I kind of got emotional. I said, ‘I feel like I’m not good enough to wash a dog. And I need a chance.’”
Work hard and you’ll succeed. Right? That's right. Unless you’ve been incarcerated, as Jenny found out most painfully.
In January 2007, at age 40, Jenny McDaniel came to Guest House. She was determined to get her life on track. She’d been in and out of incarceration for 20 years, for nonviolent crimes; now, she had just finished the last of her time. She’d been an active heroin addict for 27 years; now, she was actively working her recovery. She could not read or write; now, a Guest House volunteer was teaching her. She had no formal job skills; but even her jailers, over the past few years, saw that she had talent. “You have what it takes,” noted the kitchen supervisor at one prison; at a county jail, where she worked in Animal Control, the managers said much the same.
“So I thought, if I can be prep manager for 25 cents a day and run a kitchen for 1,200 women, maybe I can be successful at a real job.”
It took a lot of applications to a lot of places, but Jenny landed a job at PetSmart, as a $9/hour dog washer—and they loved her. “One day,” she recounts, “I walked in and the manager was crying and there were these three guys in suits. One of them said, ‘You can’t work here.’ He said, ‘You’re commendable for what you’re trying to do, but we can’t have you here.’” They hustled Jenny out of the store, in the rain. “I was crying so hard, I couldn’t even breathe.” She made it back to Guest House, but so crushed she was ready to give up.
All across America, nonviolent ex-offenders are routinely denied employment only because they have felony records—never mind the relevance of the crime, never mind how long ago it was, never mind that by every legal measure the person has repaid her debt to society. Jobless and impoverished, how do you eventually not return to crime?
A Box of Crayola Crayons
Jenny’s first arrest, at age 20, was in her hometown of Baltimore. She was grocery shopping. In her arms was her three-year-old son, who was out of sorts and kept whining, as children do—in this case, for a box of Crayola crayons. Jenny didn’t have the money. “So I put those crayons in my purse,” she says. “I stole them.” And she was arrested. She spent five months and 20 days in prison, with a cellmate who had committed multiple homicides. “So here she was doing five life sentences, and I was in there for a box of crayons! I was scared to death! And I actually learned more about the criminal life in prison,” she notes. “I came out 50 times worse than when I went in.”
What followed were more crimes (mostly shoplifting and drugs), more arrests, more incarcerations—and money owed in restitution, court costs, and various fines and interest that mounted up to thousands of dollars, which she could not pay, which nonpayments were considered parole violations, which returned her to incarceration again and again.
Fortunately, about a year after her son’s birth, Jenny met Richard. He was the first person, ever, who treated her truly well. She’d been molested in early childhood. Her mother and stepfather, who worked hard and provided material stability, were severe alcoholics—and their home, full of chaos and fighting. At 10, Jenny left school, never having learned to read. She started taking to the streets, where she endured still more abuse. At 13, she found heroin: “It was like, o my God, I think I have met my best friend.” But it wasn’t, of course. At 16, she became pregnant; at 17, she gave birth to her son; and right after the birth, her son's father was imprisoned, leaving Jenny to struggle alone with postpartum depression, poverty and childcare. Alone, until Richard.
Twenty-six years her elder, Richard provided for her and loved her and was a good father figure to her son. They lived together for two decades. Yet throughout, Jenny cycled through crimes and incarcerations and heroin detox and heroin relapse. “I put Richard through hell with my addiction,” she says.
Jenny's touchstone: “For the first time—and this was very scary—I did what I needed to do instead of what I wanted to do.”
Richard’s death, in 2005, was Jenny’s turning point. “It made me realize that I am in this world by myself. I don’t have Richard to take care of me anymore. I had to grow up.”
Most of Jenny's crimes and punishments were in Maryland. But her final arrest was in Northern Virginia (while on a visit), where she was sentenced to six-and-a-half years’ incarceration at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, near Charlottesville, and then seven years’ probation. Upon release, she had to return to Baltimore to settle her Maryland obligations. Richard had just died, and Jenny faced her turning point. Whereupon she returned to continue her Virginia probation—entering the Friends of Guest House Residential Program.
“I showed up with my little bag. I had on my gray sweatpants and a t-shirt from jail: those clothes on my back were all I had. Kari [Galloway, Executive Director] saw that I was dead serious.” Jenny immediately involved herself in AA/NA. She entered counseling for trauma. Guest House helped her address major physical and dental health problems: artifacts of poverty and the violence she’d endured. And she had to learn “daily things” almost from scratch: how to take a bus, how to shop (“I knew how to shoplift,” she quips, “but I didn’t know how to shop”). Tears choking her voice, she now says, “For the first time—and this was very scary—I did what I needed to do instead of what I wanted to do. I figured I’m really going to give this a chance, try to live sober. It really was a scary time.”
“Are You Serious?”
Then came the employment challenge. Jenny had found that she loved working with animals. After PetSmart, after another application to another pet-care business that turned her away, Guest House set up an informational interview with Paul Haire, who’d recently started Del Ray's Your Dog’s Best Friends, had four employees and wasn’t hiring. Tears again choke Jenny’s voice as she recounts the story: When he said he had no openings, “I kind of got emotional. I said, ‘I feel like I’m not good enough to wash a dog. And I need a chance.’ When I said that, he looked over the top of his glasses and said, ‘Are you serious?’ I called him the next day just to say thank you and I’m sorry for breaking down. He said, ‘I tell you what. Come in tomorrow ready to work the floor.’”
“A smart woman with a lot of common sense, a lot of drive, a lot of gratitude. She is just unrelenting in terms of wanting to make her life work.” —Jenny as described by Paul Haire, her employer and the man who gave her a break
Jenny started as a dog washer. Often working 12-hour days, always working hard, she proved herself and moved up. She attended grooming school, got her grooming license and became YDBF’s first groomer. Washingtonian magazine has listed her among the area’s best dog groomers. Among her loyal canine clients is the dog of a U.S. Supreme Court justice; the justice's wife wrote Jenny a character reference for a rental apartment (landlords, like employers, also discriminate against felons). Haire promoted Jenny to YDBF’s General Manager in 2010—and there she has continued, successfully, ever since.
In an earlier Guest House interview, Haire described Jenny as “a smart woman with a lot of common sense, a lot of drive, a lot of gratitude. She is just unrelenting in terms of wanting to make her life work.”
Haire has gone on to hire some two dozen ex-offenders, including many Guest House graduates, now believing that “any company that is looking for long-term employees who will have the motivation and gratitude to settle into a company and learn the company, should understand that ... hiring ex-offenders makes good sense.”
Jenny has become financially stable. She sacrificed and saved and, a couple of years ago, purchased a house.
“The Sad Part”
By now, Jenny has well and truly overcome the job discrimination that she once faced and that far too many ex-offenders still face. She has been sober for more than a decade. Yet she is always mindful that she could have done nothing without the support, in particular, of Paul Haire, Guest House’s Kari Galloway and her sponsor, Pat Collins—each of whom has offered a shoulder to cry on or simple belief or early-days financial help (Jenny’s paid back every penny, she stresses). In turn, Jenny gives back to newly reentering ex-offenders, offering the same kinds of support that she was given: “They keep me on the straight and narrow. They keep me humble. I don’t want to forget that day when Mr. Haire offered me a job and I was thinking, ‘Thank you, God, for this opportunity to be here washing these dogs.’
“The sad part is that not everyone has a Paul Haire or a Pat Collins or a Kari Galloway. Without them, I know that by now I’d be dead.”
More From Jenny:
"Jenny: 'Don't Give Up' " (5:07 ~ 2015)
"Jenny" (0:36 ~ 2009)
(April 28, 2016)