A fresh start at AT&T Center

Former prisoner found work at county’s Second Chance Job Fair

By John W. Gonzalez STAFF WRITER

For electrician John Hopper, it really was a second chance.

Having done five years in prison for a drug offense, his job prospects were limited when he emerged from federal custody. But his fortunes changed in May when he went to Bexar County’s Second Chance Job Fair at the AT&T Center.

Now Hopper works there for Alterman Inc., one of the contractors working on the arena’s $111 million renovation project ahead of Friday’s home opener for the San Antonio Spurs.

While fans might think the construction work is finished, Hopper and others still will be laboring — in parts of the building that are out of public view — into December.

After that, Hopper, 29, of Leakey, probably has a future with the San Antonio electrical contractor, supervisor Jaime Katz said.

“As long as there’s work, he’s going to stick around,” Katz said. “He’s done an outstanding

job here, so he’s not leaving here until the bitter end.”

“Everybody makes mistakes,” Katz observed. “It’s how you move forward after that that sets your path.”

Katz explained what made Hopper stand out to his employer and officials with Spurs Sports and Entertainment.

“He’s someone who shows up for work every day. Someone who works the hours that need to be worked to get the job finished. Someone who does what they’re asked and never shirks a task. Someone who does good work and provides work like a craftsman,” Katz said.

Hopper had about one year of experience with the Bandera Electric Co-Op before his incarceration. Behind bars, he worked in the prison’s electrical shop, and upon release to a halfway house he began looking for jobs in his chosen field.

He soon found part-time work at an East Side golf course through the Fresh Start rehab program, and within two months of his release he was hired after the job fair by Alterman as an apprentice.

When the Spurs ended their 2015 season in June, work began immediately on extensive upgrades to the AT&T Center’s electrical and other systems. Hopper, a union member, has been installing conduit and boxes and running wire.

“I feel like I’m part of something. It’s something that is long-lasting that a lot of people will enjoy,” Hopper said.

Hopper said a few of his co-workers know about his record, and some are amazed.

“I’ve had guys tell me I should write a book,” he said. “I went through a lot.”

His employer is one of about 200 Bexar County businesses that welcome applications from former offenders, said Precinct 4 Commissioner Tommy Calvert, who proposed the job fair. While Hopper had not been rejected for work because of his record, many others at the event said they were repeatedly denied jobs for that reason.

“There were literally people in tears saying nobody had ever given them a second chance,” Calvert said. “They couldn’t believe there were employers who would want to hire them.”

The May 7 job fair at the AT&T Center, which drew 70 employers and about 1,800 applicants, was aimed at job-seekers who were unemployed due to the economic downturn or had a criminal conviction. Also invited were East Side residents from around the AT&T Center, who for years have complained they weren’t involved the center’s construction 15 years ago.

The job fair, supported by Workforce Solutions Alamo and nonprofits, offered opportunities in construction and skilled positions including masonry, dry wall, ceramic tile, flooring and painting.

Weeks ahead of the event, the county and partners staged a series of “assistance days,” where prospective applicants got coaching. The sessions — held on days, nights and weekends — offered counseling and help with resumes, preparing for interviews and even child care.

Organizers aren’t sure how many hires resulted from the job fair, but they’re convinced it was worthwhile for dozens of applicants and should be repeated.

“It was a huge success. There were people lined up out the door. … I see us doing this again next year,” Bexar County Re-entry Program manager Debra Jordan said.

The biggest challenges for ex-offenders in the program are usually finding housing and employment, Jordan said. Jobs offered to them are sometimes low-paying, entry-level positions, Jordan said, “but we have several employers here in San Antonio and Bexar County who are willing to give people a second chance and let them prove themselves.”

Now, she said, “the success stories are out there. This has been a blessing to the whole community. If we can help these people, we’re going to keep them out of the (criminal justice) system,” Jordan said. jgonzalez@express-news.net Twitter: @johnwgonzalez