When AJ Villafane was 16 years old, he went to jail for the first time. He was selling drugs in Jersey City and got caught. The cycle didn’t stop there.
“I did four years. I came out and I did it again. I did another four years, and just recently I did four months,” he said. “I think I fell back into it because of my mentality. I came home like they just took four years of my life, so there’s a lot of years that I missed that I need to catch up on and I’m going to enjoy it. And there was only one, that at that moment and in my mind, that was telling me I could enjoy was by getting money, and hanging out with girls and buying whatever I wanted to buy. That’s the only way I knew.”
But the last time he was released from jail, he had a moment that made him realize he needed to change. His daughter was no longer calling him ‘dad’.
“I was like ‘why do you keep calling me AJ?’ And she said, ‘Because you’re not here all the time.’ That touched me. I was like I can’t have her calling me AJ. The drugs were saying if I keep buying her sneakers and keep paying for her lunch for school then everything is good. But that wasn’t good because I wasn’t there for her,” said Villafane.
But it wasn’t just the desire that made him turn his life around. It was with the help of programs like the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, a nonprofit agency that helps inmates with housing, addiction treatment, health care, legal services and employment. Villafane says for the first time he felt someone see potential in him and that’s something he never saw for himself.
“When I went there, they were like, ‘you’re going to get housing.’ So in my mind I’m thinking housing. Are you telling me I can get my license? I can get housing? I can be better with my daughter? And to be honest with you, everything that they said is everything that is happening to me right now,” continued Villafane.
To create more stories like Villafane’s, New Jersey Reentry Corporation opened a new office in Elizabeth. Every week, the office will have orientation week where it will provide tools like social work evaluation, information about health and testing to see if they can be placed in employment right away.
Once they’re enrolled, a variety of resources are available.
“Then they can avail themselves of all the services that we give — the legal services, driver’s license restoration. They can come and talk to the social worker whenever they need. They have free access to the computer lab to do their own job searches,” said facility director Jennifer Donnelly.
“We have other sites in Jersey City, Newark, Paterson and Ocean County, but this is the first in Union County,” said Gov. Jim McGreevey. “You can’t ask someone to get addiction treatment five towns away or go to employment opportunity 10 towns away. … People are coming out of prison every single day, every single week, every single month, and they’re coming back to Elizabeth, back to Union County and that’s why we provide this service.”
McGreevey says his program costs about $2,200 per client. The cost of a prison cell is about $55,000 a year. But he says it’s not just that. By giving people a hand, he says you’re giving them a second chance.
“Eighty percent of our clients never go back to prison, 62 percent of them find employment and so we’ve always wanted to expand,” said McGreevey.
“You have to want it for something to happen to you,” Villafane said.
As the event wrapped up and people were leaving, McGreevey said he was giving Villafane a ride to work. He not only has a job now, but he has an apartment and spends every weekend with his daughter.
Villafane recounted, “It was snowing, she called me up and said ‘Daddy, stay home and be safe.’ That right there, I know I’m doing something good.”