Unless a meeting lasts too long at the East Norriton ShopRite where Louis Rivera, 40, works as an assistant manager, he'll be at Wednesday's ribbon-cutting for a new job-training program at Enon Baptist Tabernacle church on Philadelphia's northern border.

"It's something that's needed," Rivera said — and Rivera knows that better than most.

Louis Rivera, 40, a former drug dealer who has served time and has been employed by ShopRite for nine years, was promoted to lead assistant manager at the East Norriton Square store. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer.
ED HILLE / Staff Photographer.
Louis Rivera, 40, a former drug dealer who has served time and has been employed by ShopRite for nine years, was promoted to lead assistant manager at the East Norriton Square store. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer.

In a spacious room not far from Enon's 5,000-seat sanctuary, four mock supermarket check-out lines have been set up, complete with cash registers and a wall of paper towels, cereal, and snack food, neatly shelved. Nearby, computers are ready for the first class of 28 students to sign in and start their lessons, with training to begin next week.

Six weeks later, the students, all people like Rivera who served time in prison, will graduate with a guaranteed cashier job at ShopRite supermarkets — 20 hours a week, $7.75 an hour.

To Rivera, a former drug dealer who struggled to find a job when he was released from prison, the guarantee is crucial. "So many programs give people a false sense of hope," he said. The person gets out of prison, goes to a training program and then, is given job help, but no actual job. "You've gone through all this work and then you feel like giving up."

Rivera would be the first to say that 20 hours at minimum wage isn't sustainable. In March 2008, when he got his first paycheck from Shop Rite, for $120, after earning much, much more as a drug dealer, he almost returned to his more lucrative street career. But he resisted and now earns $75,000, minus the threats of violence and arrest.

The program is ambitious — 28 in the first class, 140 to 150 in the first year, all to be employed at the 13 ShopRite and Fresh Grocer stores owned by Jeffrey Brown and his family. Brown has been outspoken about the importance and benefit of hiring people with criminal records."I believe that a significant part of our growing poverty problem is people who have been formerly incarcerated" and can't get jobs, Brown said. After employing the formerly incarcerated for over a decade, his company, he said, wants to use its knowhow to help society.

"These are people who need another chance and that's what the message of Jesus Christ is all about," said Rev. Alyn E. Waller, Enon's pastor. In return for a rent discount, Enon will be able to place a few students in each class.

The Rev. Dr. Alyn E. Waller, senior pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, in the sanctuary of the church, which holds 5,000 people. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
The Rev. Dr. Alyn E. Waller, senior pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, in the sanctuary of the church, which holds 5,000 people. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

"This is not intended to be evangelistic," Waller said. "There may very well be Muslims in the class. Of  course, I want everybody to be Christian, but we're not going to proselytize everyone in order for them to get a job."

With a membership of 15,000, the church offers many programs, including marital counseling, anger management, and mentoring, all available to class members, regardless of whether they attend Enon.

The program will include training in soft skills, such as customer service. Participants will receive a $125 weekly stipend, plus lunch and a bus pass, The program employs a social worker, Lauren Ruday, who connects students with social service agencies and parole and probation officers. ShopRite human resource manager Monique Oakman is the senior instructor.

Atif Bostic is executive director of Uplift Solutions, a separate nonprofit started by Brown, which is running the training program. He said the goal is to have 80 percent graduate with 80 percent of the graduates working a year later.

Barry Johnson, the training program's director, said he'll count the effort a success if 93 percent to 95 percent of those who enroll stay out of prison and are not arrested in a year. When word went out about the program, 400 people applied, Johnson said.

The Nerney Family Foundation and the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey are funding the program, with an annual operating budget of $463,000.