Dannon Project graduation

Graduates Steven Thomas and Vernisha Thomas grab a selfie after receiving their certificates from the Dannon Project Re-entry Program for Young Adults on Friday during a ceremony in Hobson City. 

When Wayne Heard spoke to graduates of the Dannon Project’s reentry program Friday morning in Hobson City, he told them not to shy away from their pasts. 

“You can’t be embarrassed about your journey,” Heard, the director of the Reentry Demonstration Project, said. “You can’t put it in a closet and forget that it happened.” 

The Dannon Project is a Birmingham-based nonprofit that helps nonviolent offenders leaving jail and prison reintegrate with society. Jermelle Pruitt and his wife, Kerri, founded the Project in 1999, three years after Pruitt’s teenaged brother Dannon was accidentally shot and killed in Hobson City by a recently released non-violent offender. The organization introduced the reentry project two years ago; it teaches life skills to young adults who have been incarcerated or otherwise interacted with the court system over non-violent offenses. 

Heard spoke to 15 graduates who wore blue graduation caps and gowns inside the gymnasium behind C.E. Hanna Elementary, just after they received certificates for completing the program.

He said after the event that he applied to the project in 2011, after he was arrested for a crime he said he was later found innocent of committing.He wasn’t able to join as a client at that time, he said, but meeting the people involved in the program was an inspiration for him. He told students during the commencement ceremony that he was just weeks from taking the Alabama State Bar exam. He took a job with the organization earlier this year to lead the reentry project. 

Heard said local nonprofit programs like the Dannon Project can help combat recidivism, which will ease some of the financial burden on state prisons and local jails. 

“That’s why programs like this are paramount, because they’re putting people on a new path,” he said. 

The economic impact of training nonviolent offenders and putting them into the workforce would be worth the effort, he said. Company leaders have told Heard that they want to grow from year to year, he said, but have complained that there isn’t enough of a workforce to draw from. 

He said that there might be a workforce that’s simply being ignored. 

“If our participants can make it through the hell and high water they have in their lives — we know they have grit, they’re resourceful, we know they have high emotional intelligence, we know they know how to empathize — these are the people you need to plug into your workforce,” Heard said. 

Bianca Johnson, 23, was one of the graduates. She said she’d learned about interviewing for jobs, filling in applications, tips for how to dress professionally and how to “stay out of trouble.” 

“It’s a wonderful program to be in, especially if you’ve been in trouble a lot and need someone to mentor you,” Johnson said. 

She said she hoped to go to college to be a nurse one day, and might want to come back to the Dannon Project as a mentor for others. 

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560.