Rayshun Holt

After spending 21 years in prison in the prime of his life, Rayshun Holt returned to a familiar neighborhood with familiar challenges in a rapidly changing city. From professional sports stadiums to high-profile parks, downtown Cincinnati got a makeover while Holt was behind bars. “It was like being in a foreign territory,” he said.

“Just catching a bus was a struggle. Half the time I got on a bus, I didn’t know where I was going. Thank God for GPS.”

Holt experienced a makeover of his own during his prison sentence. And just as he needed help navigating the re-made landmarks in his hometown, Holt needed help from Cincinnati Works and a team of other supporters to make the most of his second chance.

Two years later, he has a stable job in a leadership position at a thriving local company, and he mentors young people who face the same challenges today that he faced as a troubled teen.

“Rayshun’s dogged persistence, his patience with the journey and his openness to helping hands along the way – from Cincinnati Works and others – has changed his trajectory,” Cincinnati Works President & CEO Peggy Zink said.

Holt described his story as “a little different, but in the same light, it’s typical” of young people in poverty. He was a good student as a child, but as a teenager he “made a conscious decision to start living a life of crime.” At age 15, he shot and killed a 14-year-old friend. He was tried as an adult, convicted of murder and spent 21 years in prison.

About halfway through his sentence, he said, he rededicated himself to education and earned some college credits. “I began to find myself again,” he said. When the parole board approved his release, Holt expected to find a good job and settle into a comfortable life, based on those college credits and the parole board’s stamp of approval.

“I had a plan,” he said. “Or so I thought.”

He struggled to find an employer willing to look past his criminal record. Eventually, a friend referred him to Mitch Morris and the Phoenix Program at Cincinnati Works, which aims to curb gun violence by connecting neighbors to jobs and other valuable services. Holt enthusiastically took advantage of those resources and began volunteering with Cincinnati Works, helping connect other folks with Morris and the Phoenix Program.

Through Cincinnati Works, Holt met Rob Daly, a local business leader who became a mentor and friend.

“All the time, I had been looking for a job, a job, a job,” Holt said. “What I didn’t realize was that I probably should have been trying to find my way into a career, career, career. Through (Daly’s) guidance and his friendship, I was able to start networking. That eventually led me to my family at Nehemiah.”

Holt was hired as a supervisor at Nehemiah Manufacturing, a growing local company with a history of hiring employees with criminal records. He is helping the company through its move to a new, larger facility, and he is in a position to mentor co-workers the same way Morris and Daly have mentored him.

“It’s truly a blessing,” Holt said.

As his career takes shape, violence and poverty remain a concern in his old neighborhood and much of Cincinnati; Holt said his mother still regularly hears gunshots. Now, though, Holt makes a conscious decision every day to lift others out of danger, rather than immerse himself in it.

“The most important thing about this story is that the story isn’t finished yet,” he said. “The work has already begun and we have a whole room full of people here who are working to make sure it gets done.”