AUSTIN (KXAN) — Raised on the streets, the sound of gunshots is just down the road from one group of teens in northeast Austin. Around the corner, a friend is being held at knifepoint.

But one nonprofit in Austin is determined to show these youths another way to live.

“I had to choose a better route. I was stuck in my ways, doing what I wanted to do,” said Antonio Martinez, 21.

Martinez said he was homeless, addicted to drugs and spent time with the wrong crowd. His friends started dying and going to jail. He said if he didn’t change, death “would be inevitably soon for him, too.”

“It was a hard decision, but then it was easy because I knew I didn’t want to end up like that in the long run,” Martinez said.

Antonio Martinez testimonial.

According to the University of Manchester, youth living in poverty are 13 times more likely to commit violent crimes.

Jail to Jobs teaches work and life skills, while the teens earn a paycheck for working. According to Jail to Jobs, the nationwide recidivism rate in the country is 75%. But at Jail to Jobs, it’s 15%.

Martinez has been with Jail to Jobs for more than nine months and works in the construction program. Other workforce programs offered include manufacturing, landscaping and culinary.

The Culinary Program

The creator of the culinary program and executive chef says the impact of the program makes a difference that spills outside Jail to Jobs and into communities.

“Every girl that you see out there is not actually just one, it’s five — because when they go back home they talk about the dish that they made,” said Saulo Cooper, executive chef. “They get the people in their neighborhoods excited, and then they become the change and that ripple effect is immeasurable.”

Jail to Jobs graphic
Jail to Jobs graphic

The program is opening a restaurant called “Salt Kitchen” later this year. The staff will consist of those in the culinary program.

Janett Bonilla, a student in the culinary program, said Jail to Jobs opened doors for her that are usually shut.

“They haven’t forgotten about people like us, the broken people, people that (others) just don’t want to take the chance on,” Bonilla said.

She previously spent time in juvenile detention and while on probation, she turned to Jail to Jobs and is now training to be a supervisor.

“These last nine months have been transforming me and my son’s life,” Bonilla said.

Bonilla said she would be behind bars right now if it weren’t for Jail to Jobs and the support system it has given her.

“It’s really hard to find role models, and Saulo is a big impact in my life,” Bonilla said. “I wasn’t a very confident person when I first started here, and he’s helped me build that.”

Supervisors at Jail to Jobs

He’s helped her build that because he’s been through it. Every single supervisor and coordinator at Jail to Jobs has been incarcerated. Jeremias Cooper, the Travis County director, said it gives them a deeper reason to connect with the adolescents.

“We can use our past experiences to connect with them, then we build this bond,” Jeremias said. “So now we have this emotional real estate that we’ve built up with them where they trust us, and they trust our leadership.”

Jeremias said his drive to show up every day and mentor the youth comes from his past. He spent time in jail at the age of 12, and never had anyone willing to lend him a hand. He said other supervisors in the program can relate.

Jeremias Cooper on working at Jail to Jobs.
Jeremias Cooper on working at Jail to Jobs.

“If we would have had something like this when we were growing up, we would have attached ourselves to it. It’s very rare that you find an organization that hones in on your gifts and talents, instead of all the negative things in your life,” Jeremias said. “And, then trying to help become a better version of yourself, you don’t find that. And, so that’s why we’re able to have the success that we have.”

Working with private companies

Jeremias said the youth face an employment barrier and the money can help expand the program and offer more job training.

“It’s very difficult for them to enter into the workforce and already know how to maintain successful employment because they’ve never had that training,” Jeremias said.

Saulo says he knows the hurdles of finding a job after incarceration. He was behind bars for 11 years.

“It’s almost impossible to get hired. We need to look at people that have been in jail a little bit differently,” Saulo said.

But one company is making it easier for the youth to enter the workforce. Cordsen Construction has partnered with Jail to Jobs for more than two years. The youth work on-site every day and build houses.

Chris Cordsen, COO of Cordsen Construction, said as his business grows, he needs more workers, and the Jail to Jobs crew is an untapped resource of people to hire.

“This is a group of people that don’t get a second chance, a lot of people write them off,” Cordsen said.

Cordsen said it was a conscious decision to bring the youth on board and not hire a contracting group.

“They’re not the fastest. They’re not the cheapest — but we believe investing in them is important. Investing in their future means something. Life can’t only be about money,” Cordsen said.

Partnering with companies like Cordsen Construction, is critical in keeping the program running.

“It’s really the community partners, workforce partners, who are supporting what we do and supporting the change of our youth here in Austin,” Jeremias said.

Jail to Jobs is privately funded. Jeremias says because funding is pivotal to the growth of the organization, they are hoping to work with the city to bring in more money. The nonprofit applied for Austin’s re-entry grant program.

The grant will give out $400,000 in awards across two different programs.

Jail to Jobs finds out at the end of September if it will receive grant money.

  • Jail to Jobs crew on worksite (KXAN Photo/Clare O'Connor)
  • Antonio Martinez, left, and Jeremias Cooper outside the Travis County location. (KXAN Photo/Clare O'Connor)

The Juvenile Justice System

Jail to Jobs has four locations across Austin and will soon be adding another one. The youth that enter the program come from foster care, probation, the streets and juvenile detention.

According to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, every year around 40,000 kids are referred to juvenile probation in Texas. Texas is one of three states that treats those 16 and up as adults in the justice system. The other two are Georgia and Wisconsin.

More than 1,200 teenagers are in adult prisons or jails in Texas.

Jeremias said the program has personally felt the violence on the streets. Last year, two of its youth were murdered and one died at knifepoint. Jail to Jobs hosted two of the funerals.

“Those hit home to us because those are youth that we’ve mentored and spent a lot of time with,” Jeremias said. “I refuse to lose another kid, and so what wakes me up every day to want to keep doing what I’m doing is trying to make sure that I don’t lose one, whatever that may be,” Jeremias said.

Martinez believes what he’s experienced over the past nine months with Jail to Jobs would change violence on the streets universally.

“The youth are the people that we need to save because they’re our next generation,” Martinez said.

Jeremias says what Jail to Jobs has been able to accomplish in Austin can be mirrored in other cities in Texas. That expansion, he says, is his goal.

“Jail to Jobs brings life and speaks life into our youth,” Jeremias said.