by Steve Palackdharry
Walter Zalenski is beginning his new career as a truck driver. He is 57 years old, and is four months removed from a prison term.
“After being cooped up for six years, the idea of the open road is very appealing to me,” Walter says.
He has been hired by a trucking company based in Lincoln Park and will be delivering auto parts to General Motors plants across the state.
“Truck-driving is a felony-friendly occupation, but there were still firms that seemed reluctant to hire me because of my record,” Walter says. “I was starting to feel down in the dumps, but then this opportunity came along, and it’s a blessing to see.”
He recently got his Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) after completing the two-month training at Anbeyon Truck Driving School in Detroit. Anbeyon is one of the partners of a special job-training initiative that Southwest Solutions’ Earn + Learn program is implementing. The initiative is called the Reentry Bridges to Career Opportunities.
Walter is one of 30 people who’ve enrolled in the reentry program, which provides job-training opportunities, work-readiness training, case management, job and financial coaching, and other support services to help returning citizens reintegrate into society.
He went to prison for marijuana distribution. He was sentenced to seven years under the federal Mandatory Minimum Penalties for Drug Offenses because of a previous drug-related conviction for which he served a year.
Walter first became involved with drugs after building a local and successful construction company called Freedom Concrete. At its peak, Walter had 45 employees working for him. Then he started using cocaine and became addicted. He lost his company, and his 15-year marriage came apart. The divorce and estrangement from his two children deepened Walter’s despondency and his dependency on drugs.
In 2007, two years after his first prison stint, Walter was arrested again. Before his trial, he fled the country and went to Jamaica, staying with a friend who was dying of cancer. He cared for his friend while also doing some construction work on the island but his drug use continued.
“After my friend died, I finally decided that it was time to get clean,” Walter says. “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I’ve been clean and sober for 8 years now.”
Federal authorities arrested Walter in Jamaica in 2012. They discovered his whereabouts when he called his mother, who was gravely ill.
In prison, Walter was determined to show that he wanted to lead a better life. He studied in the library and worked out in the gym every day. His consistent good behavior resulted in his being moved from a high-security facility to a medium-security one and then to a low-security camp.
After prison, Walter came to a halfway house in Detroit. There, he learned of the reentry program and then met with Angie Rayford, who helps eligible individuals enroll and also connects them with services and resources they may need.
“It’s a stellar program,” Walter says. “Ivory [Hodges], the financial coach, helped me to re-establish my credit and set up a bank account for direct deposit. Chris [Purnell] and Rosetta [Kincaid] helped me prepare for my interviews and returning to work. Without their help, I would not have been able to transition to my new life so quickly.”
After leaving the halfway house, he is moving into the basement of friend’s home in Dearborn Heights. He has repaired a car he can use and is grateful for the gas card that the Earn + Learn program gave him so he can get to work while he waits for his first paycheck. Walter will be making $22 an hour to start. Under the terms of his probation, he is not allowed to drive out of state currently. But as he continues to prove himself, that will change.
“My story is not over,” Walter says. “In fact, there are more chapters to be written. Once I get the green light to travel out of state, I’ve lined up a job that will let me drive coast to coast. I cannot wait for the day when I go through the Rocky Mountains. I plan to pull over by the side of the road, get out of my cab, and then whoop and holler at the top of my lungs. Then I’ll know that I’m truly free.”
In addition to truck driving, participants in the reentry program can train for jobs in hi-lo driving and the skilled trades.
To be eligible for the program, participants must be currently on parole or probation, or released from parole or probation within six months of applying for the program. They must also reside in certain Detroit zip codes. To learn more about the program and eligibility, contact Angie via email or 313-297-0099.
The Earn +Learn reentry program is funded through a grant from the Department of Labor (DOL) that was given to the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) to support reentry programs in five cities, including Detroit.
Steve Palackdharry is director of communications at Southwest Solutions