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After losing his company in the economic downturn, a chance encounter transforms an entrepreneur’s hunt for a second career

November 2, 2017  | 4 min read

When his lucrative real estate brokerage company suddenly folded during the housing market’s colossal collapse in 2010, Dylan Hood (MPP ’17) became despondent and was desperate for something to cling to. Overwhelmed by thoughts of an uncertain future, his psyche was flooded with competing emotions, the most serious of which engendered suicidal thoughts. One night in his upscale Chicago apartment, Hood was confronted with two options: end it all or spend the remainder of his life making a meaningful contribution to the world.

Inspired by the notion of making a positive difference in people’s lives, Hood began to explore a second career as a substance abuse counselor in an effort to help others battling the same demons he once faced.

“I believe that everyone deserves a second chance,” he expresses. “There were plenty of ways that I could have wound up behind bars, but the grace of God helped me.”

While receiving his training at a small community college, he met a classmate who shared his desire to support those who had become detached from society due to drug use, involvement in crime, incarceration, and other factors. This notion planted a new seed in Hood’s mind—that the ideal profession for him would utilize his real estate expertise in specific ways to help individuals overcome life-altering personal struggles.

Over the next couple years, as part of an independent project, Hood spent countless hours interviewing staff members at numerous prisons throughout the United States, asking each one the same two questions: why are recidivism rates so high and how can they be reduced? After speaking with hundreds of subjects, he found that none of them could offer a satisfactory answer.

What he eventually learned was that availability of mentorship and resources can reduce recidivism by 27 percent, a concept he refers to as “the 800-pound telephone.” Hood has a personal understanding of the strength it takes to seek help and reinforces that the phone can suddenly seem too heavy to lift during times of trouble.

“In our minds, we think that if we call people to ask for help, they’ll think we’re weak and they won’t respect us. We feel like we’ll be bothering them,” he shares, adding that calls for help are rarely ever made.

In 2013, with deeper knowledge of what formerly incarcerated individuals experience after leaving prison, Hood founded Freedom House Reentry, Education and Employment Corporation (FREE), a Chicago-based organization that assists recently released inmates transition back into society.

Between July 1 and December 31 of this year, in partnership with Verizon Wireless, FREE has offered the Get Help AppTM Phone Program (GHAPP) to a test group of 1,200 individuals exiting Illinois prisons. The mobile phone application, which provides formerly incarcerated individuals with mentorship and employment opportunities, mental health and medical counseling, and a direct link to resources for successful and sustained reentry back into their communities, has been pre-downloaded on iPhone 6 devices and is free of charge for all participants.

Specifically designed to respond to this population’s unique 24/7 on-demand needs, GHAPP offers three ways to access help: “Speak” (to call mentors), “Text Message” (to write to mentors), and “Refer a Resource” (managed by trained operators to locate any resource—from hair salons to grocery stores to shopping centers—based on the phone’s GPS settings).

“Our mentors are peer mentors,” Hood points out, “which means they were formerly incarcerated. We are employing them and paying them a living wage.” A training module is also being developed through a partnership with Adler University, a Chicago-based institution offering degrees in psychology, couples and family therapy, rehabilitation counseling, and community health.

In the event that mentors interact with users who require a more advanced level of counseling than they are trained to provide, calls may be transferred at any time to a dedicated on-duty clinician. Several usage restrictions have also been strategically imposed on the phones to flag inappropriate behaviors and illegal activities, and communications will be tracked to ensure ethical boundaries are not crossed.

“We want the mentors to listen and to share their own experiences because they have gone through the same processes as the people they are speaking with. But we are really stressing that we do not want them to give advice to anyone,” Hood reveals.

Once GHAPP becomes available in nine additional states after January 2018, FREE plans to introduce a similar application for veterans involved in the criminal justice system—the Vet Help App Phone Program— with test programs scheduled to launch in California and New York in late 2017.

FREE’s next partnership will be with Children of Promise, NYC (CPNYC), to build drop-in centers for children with incarcerated parents in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York—a natural collaboration given CPNYC offers after- school and summer day camp programs that uniquely and attentively address the welfare of this specific group. Once open, the drop-in centers will coordinate bonding visits, “which means we will take a busload of children to a correctional facility so they can visit their parents and keep those family bonds alive,” Hood explains.

While traveling nonstop between Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York to raise awareness of FREE’s cause, Hood recalls how his time at the School of Public Policy and School of Law (where he is currently a student) have equipped him with the necessary tools to secure such substantial partnerships with government-operated entities and international corporations.

“When I originally wanted to gain a better understanding of policy, I was specifically interested in identifying how to get things done,” he notes.

“Through all of the [course-required] reading, I learned that making changes in policy is really about influence. Money has a lot to do with it, but you don’t have to have money. What you have to have is persistence and drive, and to not feel intimidated. I persist until I get results.”