Mon | Sep 25, 2017

One-time cheerleader and drug dealer now puts felons to work

Published:Sunday | November 6, 2016 | 11:02 AM
Organisers Michael Elliott and Cheri Garcia pose for a portrait during a Cornbread Hustle event on Tuesday, August 16, 2016, in Dallas. Cornbread Hustle is a staffing agency that places released convicts. Cornbread Hustle is a for-profit enterprise that typically takes a buck or two of a staffer's hourly income but often provides transportation to and from work and tries to iron out the conflicting demands of parole officers and employers.

DALLAS (AP):

Cheri Garcia believes in second chances. The 29-year-old Dallas entrepreneur and publicist had more than her fair share before turning her life around.

Garcia, a former cheerleader at The Colony High School, dealt methamphetamine to pay for her own habit but never got caught.

She was arrested for stealing, driving while intoxicated and so many other lesser infractions that she lost count.

Yet she never did time.

"If you were to pull up my record, the only thing you'd find is a DWLS - driving while licence suspended - in 2007," she told The Dallas Morning News. "There was some white privilege there, honestly. That's why I do what I do now."

A few months ago, Garcia launched Cornbread Hustle, a staffing agency for convicted felons. She and her operations manager, Michael Elliott, have already placed more than 30 former inmates, primarily in lawn care, construction and bakery jobs.

Cornbread Hustle is a for-profit enterprise that typically takes a buck or two of a staffer's hourly income, but often provides transportation to and from work and tries to iron out the conflicting demands of parole officers and employers. Most of the jobs pay $11 or $12 per hour.

While the company is early-stage, Garcia says it's already making money - thanks to free rent - and gaining traction.

Volunteer of America Texas, a non-profit residential prisoner re-entry programme, wants Garcia to help 250 men and women at its halfway house near the Hutchins State Jail, says Jennifer Leney, chief development officer, adding that this is the first step of many being explored. "Cheri's great. We're really excited."

And thanks to fellow entrepreneurs with soft hearts, Cornbread Hustle has more jobs that Garcia could fill if parole officers were more flexible and if she had a way to pay for more drivers.

"When I work with these guys, I see how hard it is," Garcia says. "I'm trying to get them a job, but their parole officer won't let them go to the job site because of ankle-monitor restrictions."

Only one has bombed out. "He sucked at mowing lawns," she says.

"If you're the first person to give them a chance on the outside, they don't want to let you down. It's a personal thing," she says. "Embarrassing me in front of an employer would shatter their world."

Garcia recently shared her story with the Huffington Post and on Steve Harvey's television show. But she kept the story of her checkered past quiet around Dallas.

I've worked with Garcia on several columns but had no idea of her early struggles until recently.

"I grew up superprivileged," she says. "My mom and dad worked for Sprint, and both made six figures. We had a nice house in The Colony in a nice neighbourhood."

Cheri was arrested for shoplifting at 13 and got a slap on the wrist, then again at 15, when she was sent to juvenile jail. Her parents let her spend Thanksgiving weekend behind bars, hoping to shock some sense into her.

But Cheri was more worried about getting kicked off the cheerleading squad than changing her ways.

Her home life began to crumble in her junior year as her parents headed into divorce.

"I had heard about meth and somebody told me that it makes you lose weight, stay up late, have energy and get good grades. And I was like, 'Who wouldn't want that?' I tried it once and did it every single day after that day for two years."

Drug dealers gave her product if she sucked in others. "Frisco soccer moms, as sad as that is, were my best customers because they were too scared to get out and get it themselves. But they wanted to clean the house all day and be productive and be wired," she says.

Garcia, who was Cheri Chafin back then, moved into her own apartment when she was a senior. She got busted for marijuana after a neighbour complained about the smell. Since she'd smoked all her weed, the police officer didn't arrest her, but he reported the incident to her high school.

She got kicked off the cheerleading squad and had to do community service to get her diploma.

"But nobody suspected that I was on methamphetamine," she says. "They just thought, 'Man, she's losing her damn mind.'"

In 2007, Garcia says she had a harrowing experience when she had a toxic reaction to taking methadone, hoping to come down from a meth high. She awakened to the realisation that her mother might have found her dead in her upstairs bedroom.

"God gave me the second chance - not the courts, not anyone else. God gave me a second chance. From that day on, I never did drugs again," she says.