Finding his niche at age 24

Derek Knuth is the director of Offender Services at Kinexus. He has a degree in criminal justice and originally wanted to work with youths. But he found his niche helping people coming out of prison find homes, jobs and other services on their way to self-sufficiency.

BENTON HARBOR — When Derek Knuth graduated from Ann Arbor’s Concordia University with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, he wanted to work with youth. 

But when he returned home to St. Joseph after college, his career path took a different turn.

He took a job at Kinexus in Benton Harbor as a temporary worker at the front desk. Six years later, he’s the director of Offender Services for Region 8 of Kinexus. The Michigan Department of Corrections contracts with Kinexus to provide targeted interventions for people who are re-integrating into the community from prison incarceration.

Knuth, 30, sat down with Herald-Palladium Staff Writer Julie Swidwa to talk about what he and his team do.

What are some of the services you’re responsible for?

There’s four different types: residential stability, health and behavioral health, social support such as clothing and transportation and, one of the biggest ones, job placement, helping people find employment.

Is that one of the biggest obstacles for people coming out of prison?

It is. The economy is really helping right now. And because we have such a strong relationship with our internal business services team, it really helps us get our foot in the door (at businesses) to kind of present another talent pipeline for them. 

How long have you been doing this?

I’ve been affiliated with prisoner re-entry or offender success for four total years. I actually worked in a couple different departments throughout the organization. I started at the front desk as a temp. Then within three months I got hired into the talent team, working within career services. I got my first exposure to individuals with criminal backgrounds because I was managing a caseload of people who were on food assistance. Generally, those that are coming out of prison are eligible for food assistance so I had a caseload of about 35, providing career case management services, job placement, and wrap-around services.

Then I moved over to the business team where I was working on business retention/expansion projects. Then the prisoner re-entry project kind of got tossed into my lap and they said hey, why don’t you create a model that’s your own? Here’s your resources, create a program, put some structure around it then start doing some business engagement. It turned out to be some of the best practices that were implemented throughout the entire state, and then about a year and a half after that, I actually started running the program.

In 2017 we applied for a regional grant to expand from the tri-county area to run all of Region 8, which we now do, which is all of Berrien, Cass, Van Buren, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph, Calhoun and Branch counties.

Is this rewarding work?

Absolutely. Dealing with the individuals that we do, we understand that we’re always going to run into setbacks. We see so many times where people struggle with their rehabilitation. Whether it’s drug use, losing a job or what have you. But here’s a story that’s really uplifting. Three weeks ago we had an individual call our jobs specialist and leave him a voicemail. Usually you’re crossing your fingers hoping it’s a good one not a bad one. The guy picks up the phone and here was an individual who was placed into employment and was ready to quit his job within a week. Between talking with his employer, his case manager here at Kinexus and his parole supervisor, they said hey stick it out, we’ll continue to have conversations with your co-workers, your immediate team members.

Two months later, we get this voicemail from this individual, and he says, “Hey, I wanted to tell you how thankful I am that I stuck out this job. I’ve had two raises and two promotions now. I also just got Employee of the Month. I can’t tell you how happy I am that you guys were able to get me all the support I needed to enter into employment, found me a place to stay and encouraged me to stick with my job and gut it out because I couldn’t be happier and more on a big road to self-sufficiency than I am right now.”

Do you like what you’re doing?

Absolutely. I feel like I’m one of the most fortunate people, to start where I was within the organization and then be able to take advantage of the projects that were put in my lap, and then find my exact right seat on the bus at the age of 24, already working at the state level. 

What do you do for fun?

I play a lot of fast-pitch softball. I have three cousins that, we all moved home when we got done with school. It’s a league that our uncles used to play in and we kind of just fell into that. We asked a gentleman to run our team and now we’ve been playing for seven years. We travel all around the state and Midwest.

Is there anything you would want people to know about you that I haven’t asked you?

If we’re talking professionally, I can tell you that the people on our team are here because they really care about the community and what we’re actually doing. The population that we serve often times is forgotten. We’re very, very lucky to work in a state like Michigan that is forward thinking and has this type of programming. There’s other states that don’t have programming and resources for people when they are released into the community, and just don’t set them up for success.

It’s paramount for the success of any re-entry population, not just parole but people on probation, youth populations, or the jail-based populations that these evidence-based practices work. We’re going to continue to push forward in the community and try to secure more resources to try to bring more stuff to the table to help all those people too.

Contact: jswidwa@TheHP.com, 932-0359, Twitter: @HPSwidwa