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N.C. community college Staff of the Year recipient believes in second chances

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When Greg Singleton first moved to Craven County in 2014, he applied for five jobs.

He didn’t hear back from any of them.

Singleton knew the likely reason for the silence: he’d been incarcerated from 1992 to 1996 — as a first-time, nonviolent offender — a fact he disclosed on his job applications. Though he was qualified for the jobs and met all the terms of his probation, Singleton knew that didn’t matter to most employers when it came to applicants with a criminal record.

“That set that fire inside of me to pick up this mantle of reentry work and combining the community college tools with it,” Singleton said. “That’s kind of my path coming into this.”

Eight years later, Singleton is now the director of workforce readiness at Craven Community College, where he also created the job readiness boot camp in 2017. The program supports unemployed, underemployed, and formerly incarcerated people by teaching soft skills like resume writing, interviewing, and interpersonal communication, among other things. Singleton is also project manager of the Craven-Pamlico Re-Entry Council with the college, a nonprofit he founded in July 2017 to help the formerly incarcerated reintegrate into society following a release from prison.

Now, as of January, Singleton is also the State Board of Community College’s recipient of the Staff of the Year award. He credits the accolade with his embrace of reentry programs and his own past.

“A second chance is what separated me from the rest of the freakin’ rock stars that we have in this community college system,” he said. “I mean to say I’m their guy out of 58 community colleges? Come on. A guy that did five years in the federal penitentiary? This is God’s work — this is not my work, this is his purpose for me.”

Greg Singleton

‘He believes in growth’

When Singleton started working with the college’s human resource development department at the end of 2014, his first job was as a substitute instructor. As fate would have it, that first position was at Craven Correctional Institution — one of the state’s largest prison processing centers.

He quickly realized inmates weren’t learning much about reentering society, which concerned him. Each year, more than 22,000 people are released from the state’s prison system, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, and 98% of current inmates will be released in the future. Still, nationally, 82% of inmates are arrested again within 10 years of being released and 61% end up back in jail in the same time period, according to 2021 Bureau of Justice data — grim statistics advocates like Singleton believe can be lowered by teaching inmates and the formerly incarcerated both personal and professional skills.

Eventually, Singleton rewrote Craven Correctional Institution’s curriculum.

“I had to present this program to the administrative staff myself. Wow, I was so nervous because after doing five years in prison, I was sitting with these people,” Singleton said. “But God had purpose.”

Singleton met with staff on a Tuesday. By Thursday, they’d posted the new class and “a long list of inmates had signed up.”

“It became a huge success in the state prison, so I became the only instructor of that class for years,” he said. “My work behind the prison wall came from behind the prison wall.” 

Craven’s job readiness boot camp isn’t only for formerly incarcerated people, Singleton said, but teaching soft job skills is an important part of any reentry work. The reentry council helps remove barriers to attending the camp, working with community partners to provide free child care and lunch to participants. Importantly, the camp itself is also free to students. The council also helps people pay for rent, gas, and food vouchers — things people need while they start over after a prison sentence.

Each boot camp runs two weeks and covers six sessions: gateway to employment, basic computer skills, resume and cover letters, career planning, economics literacy, and employability skills.

Since the inaugural boot camp in June 2017, 75% of students have completed the course. Of those students, an average of 40% received jobs within 90 days of completing the camp — a statistic Singleton is especially proud of.

“A lot of people just say, ‘Hey, I just want a job,’” Singleton said. “Now, that means a temporary state. We want to get you on a career path.”  

Former student Melinda Becton found exactly that during her boot camp tenure. She participated in the camp in 2018 following Hurricane Florence and an unexpected job loss. 

At the end of the camp, Singleton offered Becton a job she still holds — a program assistant in Craven’s human resources development department.

“Ever since then, I’ve been doing this job faithfully,” she said. “I help other people, as well as God allows me to help myself.”

Despite personal setbacks, Singleton encourages Becton getting her associate degree, which has been a dream of hers for a long time.

“I can tell you from my almost four years of working with Greg, he believes in growth. Not only does he teach you how to keep a job, but he wants you to grow, he wants you to expand,” Becton said. “He knows that I have more in me than what I see. So he’ll pull that out of you — Greg is awesome.”

Being an example

Navigating life after incarceration is difficult for many reasons. In addition to their criminal record, Singleton said many people also struggle with housing, food, transportation, childcare, education, jobs, and mental health and substance abuse.

Additionally, the stigma attached to a prison sentence follows many people professionally and personally.

“When I got out of prison, November 12, 1996, the worst thing that you could find out about me at that time was the fact that I was incarcerated,” Singleton said. “I did not want your implicit bias or your prejudice to wreak so heavily before you even gave me an opportunity or a chance. I bring that to the workplace.”

Current boot camp student Everette Turner emphasized how much Singleton inspires others, particularly formerly incarcerated people. Turner doesn’t have a criminal record but was overwhelmed and discouraged after recently losing a job.

Now halfway through the program, he said he’s looking forward to going on a job interview. Singleton is a dynamic person who teaches in a “funny, friendly type of way,” Turner said, which makes the course more engaging. 

“He’s come from humble beginnings, too, so he’s had to grow from his position, and just to see him get as far as he’s gotten, he’s inspired others,” he said. “That’s what’s so important, is that he’s inspiring. He’s got the go-getter attitude, and he’s always smiling, always friendly. I can’t say enough about him.”

Participants in Craven Community College’s March 2022 job readiness boot camp. From right to left: Gregory Singleton, Harmon Repass Jr., Everette Turner, Jikime Ellison, Pervis Rodgers, Terrence McLamore, William Askew, Phillip Joyner, Melinda B. Powe; Seated right to left: Lori Hardy and Kellie Keller. Courtesy of Greg Singleton/Craven Community College

During an interview for the State Board community college award finalists, a panel asked Singleton for any final words. His response? That Craven’s work would be contagious. 

“I want there to be 100 local reentry councils based on 100 counties in North Carolina,” he said.

Earlier this month, Singleton was also named the recipient of the Craven Community College Foundation’s Award for Leadership in Education. Before that, he was the grand marshall in the city of New Bern’s Black History Month parade.

In addition to his recent accomplishments, Singleton is already working on new projects, including a N.C. Department of Transportation Academy this year to outline the construction credentials process and a new transitional home for women released from prison in New Bern. 

In all these projects, Singleton emphasizes the importance of education — teaching people to reach back to teach someone else.

“This is a ministry,” he said, “and it’s OK to say that because helping our brother man and woman who’s unemployed or underemployed or returning from prison in jail, that is really saying something.”

Singleton believes God has more in store for him, which he joked is both scary and exciting. 

At the end of the day, he is most grateful for the way his opportunities allow him to help — and encourage — those with similar stories to his. 

“You know, it opens up a path for a thousand other brothers that I was locked up with who are way more talented than me,” he said of his State Board award. “This gives them an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I can do that.’”

Hannah McClellan

Hannah McClellan is an EducationNC reporter covering community colleges, postsecondary access and faith.