On Friday — 16 years after Dannon Pruitt was killed — Barnes stood inside the new Hobson City office of an agency that helps young people like the recently released nonviolent offender who killed her 18-year-old nephew.
“That, to me, is about the best way you can overcome hurt and pain,” Barnes said. “To help somebody else.”
The Dannon Project is a Birmingham-based nonprofit group that helps nonviolent former convicts adapt to life outside of prison by helping them train for and find jobs. The agency also provides career training to young parents and youth.
Opening an office in Hobson City was always a goal, said Kerri Pruitt, executive director of the agency. She founded the agency in 1999 with her husband, Jeh Jeh Pruitt. Dannon was Jeh Jeh’s youngest brother.
Pruitt said the man that killed Dannon never pointed the gun at him. An argument started in the street between a friend of Dannon’s and a friend of the shooter — then-25-year-old Jeremaine Walker — who fired into the air. The bullet ricochet off a building and into Dannon’s heart, Pruitt said.
Walker had recently been released from jail on a nonviolent drug charge and had little support when the shooting occurred, Pruitt said. The nonprofit was started to help her husband’s family heal, she said.
“I know it won’t erase everything, but they can see some good come out of this,” Pruitt said.
Housed in two rooms inside the Hobson City Town Hall — formerly C.E. Hanna School — the office has rows of new computers where volunteers and staff will work with ex-offenders to give them skills to help them break the cycle of recidivism.
“If they don’t have their GED or high school diploma, that’s one of the first things we work on,” Pruitt said.
A skills training program at the Birmingham office partners with businesses which are paid by the agency to train clients new work skills. Pruitt said she hopes to start such a program at the Hobson City office.
Of the nearly 6,000 the agency has helped, only about 100 have returned to prison, Pruitt said.
“We’re hands on, which means we stay in your business,” she said. “Because ultimately what we’re trying to do is build a relationship. A lot of people that’s been in prison, when they come out they don’t trust anybody.”
The adult re-entry portion of the Hobson City program will be funded largely through grants to the agency from the U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration, Pruitt said.
There are plans to start an after-school tutoring program at the office, Pruitt said, and it could grow to include time for the town’s seniors to learn computer skills as well.
Making use of the pain
Barnes, now a town councilwoman, spoke about her nephew and the shock of finding the young man lying on Draper Street so many years ago. She ran toward him but was held back by emergency responders.
“I couldn’t even touch him. I think that’s probably what hurt me more than anything,” Barnes said.
Opening the Hobson City office means the program has come home, Barnes explained.
Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson said he hasn’t spoken to anyone at the agency, but he is aware of the work it’s doing and said it can be a great help to recently released inmates.
“It is a reality that upon release from jail we know that if inmates don’t have a support structure, it can be very difficult for them,” Amerson said. “Even those who are serving time for relatively minor offenses, they can struggle a great deal when they go back out.”
Inmates often damage relationships with family members before their arrest, Amerson said, “So having someone who can give them meaningful support can certainly be a great help to keep people from getting back into the same environment that they came from.”
It’s more difficult for ex-inmates to find work, and many of the kinds of jobs that would have hired them — construction and manual labor work — aren’t as plentiful as they were before the Great Recession, Amerson said.
“There are very limited options for those people who are trying to do the right thing,” he said.
Hobson City Mayor Alberta McCrory expressed optimism that the office will have an effect on crime in the community.
“They have a program that works,” McCrory said, adding that through tragedy, Dannon’s family found a way to turn the hurt into a positive.
“It’s like a plant. Something dies so that something else can spring forth from it,” McCrory said.
Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.