“Oftentimes an individual’s success is a group effort.”
From arrests to assists: Aaron Poynter is on a mission to help those who’ve been on the wrong side of the law. “I have a unique perspective. There’s a difference between 'bad guys' —career criminals/dangers to society, and people who need help navigating barriers to breaking the cycle,” said Poynter. “Equipping individuals with the tools and pathways to reach success has a major impact from the community to the economy. I don’t believe in withholding opportunity from anyone."
Poynter, Director of Reentry Programming with the South Central and Cumberlands Workforce Development boards, has been the tip of the spear in the fight to increase workforce participation and community engagement throughout his 23-county footprint in Southern Kentucky.
Upon inception of this program, it quickly became apparent that this underserved population was lacking accessible resources and often faced an unwarranted public perception when attempting to reenter the workforce.
Prior to his tenure with the workforce development boards, Poynter served as a full-time police officer in Warren County, Kentucky. Following the relocation of his family to Russell Springs, he transitioned into Workforce Development. His experiences and encounters as a law enforcement officer equipped him with an understanding of the individuals who aren't "bad guys." This aided Poynter in championing the idea of recognizing individuals who had gotten "off-track" and separating them from the bias and stigma often associated with formerly incarcerated people when re-entering the workforce.
“Our approach was something that had never really been done before. The idea of partnering with the local county attorney was a concept piloted by Cumberlands Workforce Area Director Myra Wilson and Russell County Attorney Kevin Shearer," said Poynter. "It proved to be very effective”
Originally responsible for only the 13 counties in the Cumberlands Workforce Development Area, Aaron’s foresight for building relationships and exploring new partnerships led to satisfactory workforce placements that benefited individuals, employers, community leaders, and government officials. “We are blessed to have a ton of assistance resources across the region, especially the local resources available to individuals that may need a hand up,” Poynter said. This “whole-community” mindset enabled unprecedented partnerships that have paved the way to self-generating program sustainability and led to the program's expansion in 23 counties.
Despite the impact of the pandemic, the programming has continued to adapt to ever-changing workforce needs and has facilitated rapid success. Initially partnering with local county attorney offices, the programming quickly expanded to the specialty courts, various divisions of the Department of Corrections, recovery programs, and a myriad of other community offerings.
“By the nature of the situations we are assisting with, we have been forced to be innovative. If an individual is wondering where their next meal is going to come from, where they’re going to sleep, or where to get started looking for help – then they’re not going to worry about a job much less a career,” Poynter said.
“What we’ve done is taken a microscope to each area, identifying untapped labor pools, analyzing the needs of the individuals and the area, creating a local network for barrier removal," he said. "At the same time, we are utilizing our partnerships with employers, analyzing their needs, and bringing the two together."
In partnership with local governments in Russell County, the Cumberlands Workforce Development Board launched www.KARES.us (Kentucky Area Resources), a web-based application where individuals can view local resources, connect to those resources or request assistance in starting their journey to success. Community organizations provide contact, location information, and services to be listed on the KARES database.
“KARES has been tremendously effective in serving our communities. We've had a lot of individuals come through and we've been able to assist them in getting into, or back into the workforce. Our successes in Russell County have enabled us to include three additional counties and I have six more that we plan to bring on board. KARES is generating a lot of conversation and momentum for broadening our programming reach," he said.
Poynter was also instrumental in launching a Welding Certificate Cohort for inmates at the Pulaski County Detention Center. Two classes of participants who are currently incarcerated have graduated from Somerset Community College as certified Welders Helpers, gaining a credential, a skill, and the opportunity to enter a work-release program with a local employer. A third Cohort is planned for Spring 2022.
“Developing programming that allows incarcerated individuals to gain a skill, and provide an opportunity for them to go to work, earn a wage all while continuing to pay their debt to society is tremendous," Poynter said. "The goal is to equip the individual with tools to be successful and give them a head start on restarting their life.”
Local and statewide organizations are starting to take notice of what benefits the Cumberlands Workforce Area Re-Entry program has to offer individuals, employers, and the community at large.
On Tuesday, February 15, 2022, Poynter had the honor of speaking at the 7th Annual Workforce Summit presented by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Highlighting Workforce Expansion and Untapped Talent. This presentation was followed by a meeting with key leaders in Somerset regarding the expansion of KARES and subsequent approval of KARES launching in an additional county. All of the efforts are combined through the “Putting Kentuckians First” initiative in which Poynter’s division was selected by the Kentucky Workforce Innovation Board as the pilot program.
“I’m blessed to be a part of all the wonderful things that are happening right now, but I must say it is a team effort. Without the support of our partners and everyone involved our programming and initiatives wouldn’t be as successful as they have been. Our goal is to help as many individuals and families as we can by breaking barriers and creating a community-based solution to uplift one another. Since I work for the Cumberlands Workforce Development Board, my goal is to strengthen the individual, the community, and our workforce," Poynter said. "After all, success is often-times a group effort.”