Turning Past Incarceration into an Asset With His New Job

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A former inmate overcame a degenerative disease and uses his past jail time to connect with prisoners as an addictions counselor. In honor of September as Degenerative Disc Disease Awareness Month, Vocational Rehabilitation would like to share Gary Virgin’s success story.

Photo of Gary Virgin

Gary Virgin received services from Vocational Rehabilitation and is now an addiction counselor.

They are a blessing and they’re God-sent. VR was able to give my life back to me.

At one time incarcerated for armed robbery and addicted to drugs, when Gary Virgin came to Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) in 2006, he was a self-described “broken man.” He also had degenerative cervical disc disease and orthopedic problems. He was attending The Family Café, a conference held in Orlando for people with disabilities, when he found himself at the VR booth. “After that conference, I came home and wrote a letter to VR and explained my situation. I mentioned that I was interested in finding out more about it,” says Gary.

The letter was forwarded to VR Counselor Diane Jackson in Ft. Walton Beach. Two weeks later he had an appointment with her. The quick sequence of events scared him, because he didn’t want to lose his only source of income, Medicare. “I was scared getting a job would cancel my Medicare payments,” said Gary. “When I went to the meeting, I was still very apprehensive. What helped me most was the counselor.”

Diane was instrumental in helping Gary find his path. She conducted the initial interview with him and then followed up with a job skills test to see what his strengths were. “He was very self-motivated,” said Diane. “He just needed direction and once he got that, he ran with it”

VR paid for Gary’s bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work at Florida State University in Panama City and assisted with surgeries and transportation to school. David Hubbard, Gary’s second counselor at VR, shares, “He had a 4.0 GPA, and he involved himself with a lot of other activities. He impressed a lot of people, and they had faith in him because of all he was doing.”

Even with all of the accolades in college, Gary had a tough time finding a job because of his past incarceration. However, he actually managed turned it into an asset when he got his new job as an addictions counselor with The Unlimited Path, a company that offers substance abuse, mental health, and re-entry services at Walton Correctional Institute.

David believes that Gary advancing his education to the master’s level and doing so well was a huge factor in his progress. “He talked about the anxiety he felt working with the prison population and the anxiety he felt representing mainstream America, but having the history of the population he was serving. We talked about how he could use that as a strength and a resource. So what would have been perceived as a barrier to engage and help people, was actually a vehicle to developing relationships and effecting change.”

Gary is looking toward a bright future. He’s currently studying to take his licensure exam in social work and giving lectures for the state. His next step is to earn his Ph.D.

He is thankful to his counselors for all of their hard work. “They are a blessing and they’re God-sent,” said Gary. “I have written over 15 letters praising VR for what they were able to do with my life. Diane left me with the impression that they’re there to help. VR was able to give my life back to me.”

About Vocational Rehabilitation
Florida’s Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) is a federal-state program committed to helping people with disabilities become part of America’s workforce. Our employer-focused website, http://www.FLJobConnections.com, allows businesses to search at no charge for employees who are ready to go to work, as well as to post available jobs. VR has 82 offices across Florida, and last year helped 7,214 Floridians with significant disabilities find or keep a job. For more information about VR and its services, call (800) 451-4327 or visit http://www.Rehabworks.org.

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Rachel Smith
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