- Associated Press - Sunday, September 11, 2016

DALLAS (AP) - Cheri Garcia believes in second chances.

The 29-year-old Dallas entrepreneur and publicist had more than her fair share before turning her life around.

Garcia, a former cheerleader at The Colony High School, dealt methamphetamine to pay for her own habit but never got caught.

She was arrested for stealing, driving while intoxicated and so many other lesser infractions that she lost count.

Yet she never did time.

“If you were to pull up my record, the only thing you’d find is a DWLS - driving while license suspended - in 2007,” she told The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/2bW20ti). “There was some white privilege there, honestly. That’s why I do what I do now.”

Two months ago, Garcia launched Cornbread Hustle, a staffing agency for convicted felons. She and her operations manager, Michael Elliott, have already placed more than 30 former inmates, primarily in lawn care, construction and bakery jobs.

Cornbread Hustle is a for-profit enterprise that typically takes a buck or two of a staffer’s hourly income but often provides transportation to and from work and tries to iron out the conflicting demands of parole officers and employers. Most of the jobs pay $11 or $12 per hour.

While the company is early stage, Garcia says it’s already making money - thanks to free rent - and gaining traction.

Volunteer of America Texas, a nonprofit residential prisoner re-entry program, wants Garcia to help 250 men and women at its halfway house near the Hutchins State Jail, says Jennifer Leney, chief development officer, adding that this is the first step of many being explored. “Cheri’s great. We’re really excited.”

And thanks to fellow entrepreneurs with soft hearts, Cornbread Hustle has more jobs that Garcia could fill if parole officers were more flexible and if she had a way to pay for more drivers.

“When I work with these guys, I see how hard it is,” Garcia says. “I’m trying to get them a job, but their parole officer won’t let them go to the job site because of ankle monitor restrictions.”

Only one has bombed out. “He sucked at mowing lawns,” she says.

“If you’re the first person to give them a chance on the outside, they don’t want to let you down. It’s a personal thing,” she says. “Embarrassing me in front of an employer would shatter their world.”

Garcia recently shared her story with the Huffington Post and on Steve Harvey’s television show. But she kept the story of checkered past quiet around Dallas.

I’ve worked with Garcia on several columns but had no idea of her early struggles until recently.

“I grew up super-privileged,” she says. “My mom and dad worked for Sprint, and both made six figures. We had a nice house in The Colony in a nice neighborhood.”

Cheri was arrested for shoplifting at 13 and got a slap on the wrist, then again at 15, when she was sent to juvenile jail. Her parents let her spend Thanksgiving weekend behind bars, hoping to shock some sense into her.

But Cheri was more worried about getting kicked off the cheerleading squad than changing her ways.

Her home life began to crumble her junior year as her parents headed into divorce.

“I had heard about meth and somebody told me that it makes you lose weight, stay up late, have energy and get good grades. And I was like, ‘Who wouldn’t want that?’ I tried it once and did it every single day after that day for two years.”

Drug dealers gave her product if she sucked in others. “Frisco soccer moms, as sad as that is, were my best customers because they were too scared to get out and get it themselves. But they wanted to clean the house all day and be productive and be wired,” she says.

Garcia, who was Cheri Chafin back then, moved into her own apartment when she was a senior. She got busted for marijuana after a neighbor complained about the smell. Since she’d smoked all her weed, the police officer didn’t arrest her, but he reported the incident to her high school.

She got kicked off the cheerleading squad and had to do community service to get her diploma.

“But nobody suspected that I was on methamphetamine,” she says. “They just thought, ‘Man, she’s losing her damn mind.’”

In 2007, Garcia says she had a harrowing experience when she had a toxic reaction to taking methadone hoping to come down from a meth high. She awakened to the realization that her mother might have found her dead in her upstairs bedroom.

“God gave me the second chance - not the courts, not anyone else. God gave me a second chance. From that day on, I never did drugs again,” she says.

Her dream was to get a job in broadcasting, so she enrolled in a three-month class at the Connecticut School of Broadcasting.

She worked as a gymnastics coach, Glamour Shots photographer and circuit-board designer for nearly four years while she badgered local TV stations for a job.

Her winning ticket was a cheese pizza from Pizza Hut sent to the hiring manager with her resume face down on the pizza box. The back of it said: “If you hire me, I will deliver.”

Garcia landed a job in 2011 as an assignments editor with KTVT-TV, the CBS affiliate in Fort Worth.

That same week, she was offered a job with a station in Sherman. She took both jobs.

Neither station knew that she was on probation and paying for monthly drug tests.

But she was fired from CBS after accidentally hitting the reply-all button on an obscenity-laced message about her bosses.

But Garcia had another iron in the fire.

She had invented Luminous Envy, a patented inflatable tanning bed. The day she was fired, she got a call from her manufacturing rep in China saying that a truckload of tanning beds was on its way.

“I’d worked so hard for this job and here I go and get fired. But it was a blessing because I would never have quit and taken the leap.”

She couldn’t live off inflatable tanning beds, so she asked Jeff Crilley, a former TV reporter for Fox News, for freelance work at his Real News Public Relations. She quickly went from doing contract work to agency vice president making six figures.

“If Cheri can’t climb in the window, she’ll kick down the door,” says Crilley, who knew about her past when he hired her in 2012. “She’ll figure out a way to get into the house. I always liked her moxie.

“I think she may have a Mensa-level genius. Combined with street hustle, that’s a powerful recipe for a great PR person,” he says.

She left after two and a half years to do her own thing - make that things.

She raised $500,000 from investors to develop RentEval, an app that streamlines property management tasks like inspections.

And she’s a well-known publicist who helps Mark Cuban spread the word about Cyber Dust, his private text-messaging app. Cuban gives her free office space and allows her to drop his name when marketing herself. He also admires her work with prisoners and parolees.

“What Cheri is doing is great,” Cuban says. “I get questions on Cyber Dust from those she is helping all the time, and she has really had a positive impact. They truly appreciate her help.”

Garcia met Elliott while she was volunteering in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program a year ago. He’d earned a degree in computer science from the University of Texas in Austin in 2002 and was serving a 20-year sentence for drug possession and theft by check at the Sanders Estes Unit in Venus, Texas.

“I was getting out at the same time she needed someone to do her RentEval app,” he says. “She hired me from inside.”

Elliott was released in June and will be on parole for seven years, so he can relate to the hurdles the agency’s workers face.

“It was easy for me to step in and be the go-between,” he says.

Elliott explained the Cornbread Hustle name.

When Garcia and other the Prison Entrepreneurship Program volunteers came in, they had lunch with the inmates. “Every single time, no matter who she sat with, she would eat everyone else’s leftovers. She’d be like, ‘You going to eat that cornbread?’”

The company tagline is “Cornbread Hustle. Silly name. Serious business.”

In conjunction with the staffing agency, Garcia teaches free classes for felons and people who may not be ex-cons but are “a little rough around the edges” and want to get their lives back on track.

Garcia hopes to line up sponsors so that she can provide meals at the classes and more transportation for workers.

“We’re growing so fast, I’m starting to get worried,” she says. “Most entrepreneurs have a rough past. When they see what I’m doing, they want to give a second chance.”

Eliazar Salinas, owner of the Frezko Taco Spot in Southlake, fits that profile. He hired Kenneth Koreba to help with his food truck through the staffing agency.

Salinas, who is battling multiple sclerosis and is about to open his second location, says: “It’s cool to give back to the community and help people who need a second chance.”

Koreba, 31, was released from prison two months ago after serving five of his 11-year sentence for dealing drugs. He has visions of opening his own restaurant and food truck.

“I’ve found out a lot that I didn’t know about it - the behind-the-scenes stuff, you know,” Koreba says. “Every day is a new day. I’m blessed to have such good people around me who actually care about me fulfilling my dreams.”

___

Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com


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