Updated: Jan 26

‘I feel like anything is possible now, as long as I don’t go back to a life of drugs and crime.’

Having spent years stuck in the vicious cycle of jail and rehab, Michael M. took 2nd Opportunity’s re-entry, financial literacy, and goal-setting classes during a stint in Kane County Jail in 2020 and decided to better himself by pursuing a career in welding. In addition to providing resources for housing, substance abuse, and more, 2nd Opp’s Augie Ghilarducci helped him find schools he could attend at no cost. Less than a year after his release, Mike has completed the skilled welder course at ETI School of Skilled Trades and is doing so well that his parole officer recommended him for early release. “I am not ashamed of my past, and it does not hold me back,” he said.

Here’s his story, in his own words.

Tell us a little about your life before you were incarcerated and what it was like to get sentenced to jail.

I grew up in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and came from a solid family and a stable household. I first experimented with marijuana when I was 13, and my use and involvement continued to grow until I was kicked out of school at age 16. Although I managed to get back into school for my junior year, it was clear my good grades and athletic activities were just covering up my continued drug use. I tried heroin for the first time before I graduated from high school, and that really accelerated my downward spiral.

First it was an issue here (DUI) or there (retail theft), and then my life just became a series of issues: arrests, failed attempts at rehab, failure to meet conditions set by the courts. A complete loss of control. And as the spiral got worse, my mental health got worse – and the consequences got worse. I felt powerless to stop them. I ended up in drug court in Kane County and found the mandates impossible to meet; I had no license, found it hard to find and keep a job because of my past, and was in debt. In November 2018, I went AWOL from drug court.At some point, I started a career in metal fabrication and got my life on track, but I still had drug court hanging over my head. In May 2020, I turned myself in to Kane County. It was during this stint in County that I tried the 2nd Opportunity classes with Augie [Ghilarducci] – something that turned out to be the structure the “system” couldn’t provide but exactly what I needed.

What was your level of education prior to being incarcerated? Were you worried about what you were going to do when you got out?

I had a high school diploma. I graduated on time when I was 18. But I had no clue what I ever wanted to do for a career. I would just work temp/labor jobs and hope everything worked out. I was worried because I knew that I’d never make enough money doing what I was doing to support myself the way I wanted to.

Early on in your sentence, what was your state of mind, and did you have any plans or goals to take classes or pursue a degree or certificate?

When I was first incarcerated at 19, I was simply doing time. There weren’t many programs or classes available then, and I’m not sure I was ready to take that step for real. When I went back into Kane County Jail in 2020, I wanted to better myself while I was locked up – whether that was by taking classes, reading books, working out every day, or getting substance abuse help.

What changed?

Some of what changed was inside of me, but none of that would have helped if Sheriff [Ron] Hain hadn’t started offering some quality programs that provide resources to actually give inmates a chance upon release. I think you need both of those things to succeed.

How did you come to take 2nd Opportunity’s programming?

When I was in Kane County Jail in 2020, Augie was still able to present his classes even with COVID going on. Augie would come in once a week and we completed a questionnaire to find out what occupations we would be interested in. And we worked on setting goals. We worked through packets that Augie would bring in for us every week. We also worked on building resumes. Those classes were real lessons for the real world after incarceration taught by someone who had been there.

What was your experience like?

Very helpful. The class I took showed me how to put goals to paper and map out how to achieve them. Augie would provide us with any resource we needed for housing, education, substance abuse, etc. I took the questionnaire and knew after completing it and getting my results that I belonged in the trades. Augie provided 2nd Opp’s number for people upon release so that if they needed help with anything, he was just a phone call away. I was able to map out my goals while I was incarcerated, so I knew what I had to do when I got out. I was also able to build my resume while incarcerated so that obtaining employment upon release would be much easier.

Talk a little about how you got interested in pursuing welding as a career and how Augie and 2nd Opportunity helped.

I got a job in a metal fabrication shop and thrived there. I was doing a lot of machine work on presses, lathes, grinders, etc., but always had my eye on the welding aspect of the job. So, while I was incarcerated, I was able to find out how much being a welder paid and what kind of job requirements there would be for that career. Augie provided me with a ton of resources for setting my goals and certain agencies/programs that would help me achieve them. Upon my release, I called Augie and he knew who I had to get in touch with for me to be able to go to school for free. He also helped me find different welding schools that I could go to.

What was it like getting out of jail, and how did 2nd Opportunity’s programming help prepare you for the challenges you faced?

It felt great to be released from prison, but also very scary. Luckily, I was able to parole to my parents’ house and live there. I also had money saved from before I was incarcerated. I was able to start school two months after my release. Things I learned in the programs and the support from 2nd Opp helped me stay sober – the most important piece. But they also helped me figure out what I needed to do to be successful upon my release. Mapping out my goals on paper was useful, as well, so that I had specific instructions to follow. Augie really guided me in the right direction as far as getting into school and having it paid once I was out.

What is your life like today? Have you been able to find employment?

Life is very good today. My relationship with my family is better than it has been in a long time. I have been sober for four years. I decided to go to school full-time and completed the skilled welder course at ETI [School of Skilled Trades] in seven months. I just graduated on Oct. 13 [2021]. I have four interviews and weld tests lined up. I am not employed now, but I will be soon. And I am actually able to be picky with which company I want to work for based on wages and benefits. I’ve never had that luxury and pretty much had to take any job that came my way and feel lucky that I got it. I have a resume that is professionally done. I am not ashamed of my past and it does not hold me back.

My parole officer has put me in for early release because I am doing so well. My next goal is to get my [driver’s] license back. I am always looking forward, never back, and when I complete that goal, I will set a new one. I feel like anything is possible now, as long as I don’t go back to a life of drugs and crime. 2nd Opportunity played a huge role in preparing me to live that future.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone just starting their sentence, what would it be?

Use your time while incarcerated to better yourself any way that you can. If there are no classes available, read books. Developing a routine was definitely a key to my success. Don’t just take classes for good time or because you are bored – actually do the work and take it seriously. You need to set goals for yourself. And not just say you want to do something. Put it down on paper and list things you can do or things you need help with to achieve those goals. Making a goal concrete rather than abstract will improve your chances of succeeding.

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