For six months, Nyjheri Carnell showed up nearly every morning to the same restaurant on South Alameda Street before the sun rose, ate her breakfast, and watched the sky lighten as the rest of her CEO work crew gathered outside.
At 6 am, her site supervisor would take the crew to their location for the day -- alongside the 101 or the 10 freeways for litter abatement, up and down the coast doing beach clean-up, or beautifying parks throughout the city.
“It’s physical work, and I was exhausted by the time I got home,” she said. “But it always felt great knowing that I’d gone to work, met my goals for the day, and could get up and do it all again tomorrow. Every day I’d get to wake up with something to accomplish.”
It was during one of her early mornings over breakfast that Nyjheri set a new goal for herself.
“I had been a faithful customer [at the restaurant] for so long, and I just thought ‘I can work here,’” she said. “So I walked up to the counter and asked if they were hiring.”
Nyjheri filled out the application and handed over her resume. Then she waited. When she didn’t hear from the manager, she went back -- five times to be exact. On each visit, she left her name, contact information, and a message for the cashier to pass along to the manager. Her sentiment was always the same: “If you give me a chance, I won’t let you down.”
“I had my mind set on doing something different.”
When Nyjheri enrolled in CEO she was 26 years old and had spent a total of five years in prison since she was 20. In the past, it had been easy to fall back into old routines, friendships, and habits when she came home. But this time, she said, something felt different.
“At a certain point, you get tired of repeating the cycle,” Nyjheri said. “So I went to my probation officer and just said, ‘Look, I don’t want to go back down that road again. I need your help. I need a job.’”
Referral in hand, she showed up to her first day of CEO’s four-day orientation not entirely sure the program would work. Nyjheri had minimal work experience outside of the prison jobs she’d held, but the promise of a network of support and a daily paycheck were enough to get her in the door.
“Once I had my mind set on doing something different, I knew I just had to open my ears and listen to what they were saying,” Nyjheri said. “I knew I had to give it a chance.”
“Stay persistent, push through, and keep learning from the experience.”
After Nyjheri completed her orientation and began working on a CEO crew, she fell into a new kind of routine, one centered around early breakfasts at the restaurant, work shifts, and meetings with her job coach. The deeper she engaged with the program, the clearer it became to her that CEO “was the right place at the right time.”
During her sessions with her job coach and job developer, Nyjheri started gathering the tools she would need in her search for a full-time job outside of CEO; she built out her resume, crafted her first-ever cover letter, and sharpened her interview skills. Nyjheri felt prepared, but not without worry.
“My main concern was, how am I going to get a job without being judged on my background instead of who I am as a person,” Nyjheri said.
She attended job fair after job fair and went on what felt like dozens of interviews, but no offers came through.
“It was frustrating, but you have to stay persistent, push through, and keep learning from the experience,” Nyjheri said. “My job developer kept reminding me not to sidestep anything, but to meet the challenges head-on.”
“It feels amazing to be making money the right way.”
Meeting her challenges head-on was precisely the advice Nyjheri had in mind the morning she filled out her application at the restaurant. And, eventually, it paid off; she was on her lunch break from her work crew shift when she got the call she’d been waiting for.
Having mock interviewed dozens of times with her job developer, Nyjheri felt ready to address any question the manager might ask, particularly those having to do with her criminal history and the gaps in her resume. But, to her surprise, when Nyjheri sat down for her interview, what followed “felt like a regular conversation -- like he was just trying to get to know the real me and not my background.”
She was hired on the spot.
“I was so excited,” Nyjheri said. “I felt like nothing could stop me now, and I knew I was going to do whatever I needed to do to keep that job.”
Nyjheri has spent the last six months working full-time as a waitress and cashier at the restaurant. She has built strong relationships with her co-workers and utilizes many of the skills she learned through CEO.
“I’m always early -- two minutes early is late to me,” she said. “I show up, work hard, and show my dedication, and it feels amazing to be making money the right way.”
“Never stop trying to be better.”
Even now, Nyjheri finds herself at the CEO office at least once a week. For her, the positive relationships she’s created with the staff and other participants are key to staying on the path she’s built for herself. They are her peers, friends, mentors, and the network of support she had in mind when she started the program more than a year ago.
“They taught me not to give up and not to dwell on my background,” she said. “They gave me the courage to move forward.”
Nyjheri’s time at CEO has also helped her envision her future in a new way. She is working to become a mentor to others, younger CEO participants as they enter the program, and hopes to one day mentor and support girls who have experiences similar to her own.
“I want them to know that they don’t have to go down the wrong path to make themselves known or feel useful or successful,” Nyjheri said. “I’d tell them what others have told me -- just don’t give up. Never stop trying to be better.