Greyston, Paraco offer man a path back to society
With the OK from his boss, Kim Fudge took a break from his job on the loading dock at the Paraco Gas plant in an industrial enclave of Mount Vernon and stepped into the office trailer to talk with a visiting reporter. Talking about his life is not a habit with him and does not come easily, though Fudge speaks with an intelligence and gentle grace that impressed management at Paraco in his job interview. It impressed as well the visitor asking him questions that he’d rather not answer about a past he can never forget.
“Out of bad can come some good,” he said, describing the path he now is on, and grateful for the opportunities he’s been given by his employers at Greyston Bakery and Paraco Gas.
There has not been much to boast of in the life of Kim Fudge, which includes a very long chapter – “36 years and 10 months,” he said – spent in New York’s toughest prisons. “Just about every maximum security prison in New York I spent my time in,” he said.
Fudge spent most of his youth in Harlem. “Growing up there was a lot of negative influences that I got drawn to,” he said. “Men making easy money” through drug dealing and other crimes.
“Things just escalated with that street culture, with robberies and all that type stuff.” That life ended in a murder that sent him to state prison at 17.
He was “young and ignorant,” he said, and behind bars continued on a path that does not make one a model prisoner for self-correction.
Fudge was 53 when released from Clinton Correctional Facility, the last stop on his long tour of the state’s maximum security system. “November 15, 2011,” he said. He had no job and no housing awaiting him, but had a wife in Yonkers whom he had met, first by correspondence through a friend’s introduction, midway through his incarceration. He and Mary Sears have been married for 13 years.
He entered a strange new world transformed by technology. In bathrooms, for example, “I didn’t have to touch anything,” he said, recalling his anxious confusion. “How do I flush? How do I wash my hands?” Seeking employment, he struggled but persevered to complete online job applications.
“My wife actually suggested I go down there and sign up at Greyston Bakery” on the Yonkers waterfront. The bakery is the for-profit enterprise of the nonprofit Greyston Foundation, where disadvantaged and down-and-out men and women are trained and supported in ways and programs that can put them on the path to self-sufficiency. PathMaking, that practice and philosophy is called at Greyston.
Fudge’s wife knew about the unusual employment policy at the brownie bakery on Alexander Street. “We call it open hiring,” said Steven Brown, president of the Greyston Foundation. Job seekers like Kim Fudge can simply show up and add their names to a sign-up sheet near the entrance. No resumes or background checks are required, no questions about one’s past are asked. “We do everything legally,” Brown noted.
“Open hiring is unique to Greyston,” he said. “It’s something we’d like to see more companies do.” For some job positions at companies, “That’s a good way to address the unemployment of people who have had some obstacles to hiring.”
In June 2012, Fudge got a call to work at the bakery and entered Greyston’s 10-month apprenticeship program. “After six to eight months, I got my uniform,” he said. He worked 12-hour shifts at $9.70 an hour.
“Work was pretty much foreign to me because the only thing I ever had was summer youth jobs,” he said.
“The bakery is pretty physically demanding,” Brown said. “We give you a job but you have to work. It’s a very supportive work environment. But it’s a for-profit business and there’s an expectation that you’re going to perform.”
Attrition is high, he said. Those who fail to complete the apprenticeship program can have a second chance at employment in the bakery after a one-year wait.
Brown said Greyston in the last year has formalized its long-standing practice of encouraging workers to move on to better jobs with the start of its Next Steps program.
At Paraco Gas, a propane gas and equipment supplier with headquarters in Rye Brook, CEO Joseph Armentano had helped raise funds for the Greyston Foundation. Armentano’s father started the family-owned business in 1968 as a distributor of welding supplies and industrial gas in the metropolitan area.
“It was literally out of a garage in Mount Vernon,” said the founder’s son, who became CEO in 1988. The business has changed its product line and has grown to $150 million in annual sales and 300 employees.
Paraco is the first company to join Greyston’s Next Steps program. “This seemed to us at this time that this was a good thing to support,” said Armentano, whose company has supported numerous charities in Westchester. “It’s the first time for us to hire an ex-con. … I trusted the Greyston people to give me what they thought was going to be a good employee.”
“People is part of my business and knowing people is part of my business, and I was really impressed with Kim Fudge when I met him,” Armentano said.
“I don’t have any reservations” about the ex-con’s hiring, said Frank Carlone, Paraco plant manager and Fudge’s boss in Mount Vernon. “He did well in the interview.”
Fudge started work one month ago on the loading dock off Edison Avenue. At $16.85 an hour, he appreciates the substantial pay hike that came with the Teamsters job.
“He’s working out great,” said Armentano. The CEO hopes the 56-year-old laborer might eventually advance to a less physically demanding administrative job with the company.
Fudge would like that. “My first week, I actually had to put Epsom salt in the tub” to ease the aches and pains of hauling 55-pound containers from conveyor belt to waiting trucks in nine-hour shifts. “Sore wasn’t the word.”
“I’m working smarter now,” he said. He pulled up his sweatshirt to reveal a back brace he wears on the job.
And given an opportunity, he is living smarter, too.
“My story is really one of perseverance,” Fudge told his visitor. “With my life, I never looked at myself as a role model. I’ve just had an opportunity to show who I really am as opposed to when I was incarcerated, when I was young and ignorant.
“I had a rough and tumble life due to my own choices because I didn’t listen, but there’s always opportunity to turn it around, no matter how old you are – and not just with incarceration.” That is his message to others in need of an open hiring policy and a risk-taking employer.
Soon after speaking to the Business Journal, Joe Armentano was honored by the Greyston Foundation at its annual benefit dinner for his company’s pioneering work in the Next Steps program.
Kim Fudge was free to introduce him.