Pioneer Human Services Unlocks the Potential of the Human Spirit

Pioneer Human Services offers the formerly incarcerated a road to redemption

This article appears in the October 2019 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

For Leigha, the future looks promising for the first time in years.

Leigha is one of four recent graduates of Pioneer Human Services’ Roadmap to Success, the Kent-based nonprofit’s job-readiness training program. The three-week course, which students attend five days a week for a total of 91 hours, helps formerly incarcerated individuals transition back into the community.

The course teaches communication, resume-building and computer skills; job-search and interviewing techniques; and conflict resolution, among other items. Graduates then work with the nonprofit’s employment specialist to find full-time work.

Some are steered into vocational or apprenticeship programs. Eighty-four students graduated from the program last year, and the average graduate’s hiring wage was almost $17 per hour.

Leigha, who became homeless in 2011 and served a stint in King County jail, doesn’t know exactly what she’ll do next. She envisions a career helping others, perhaps in social services, and credits Pioneer with restoring her confidence and allowing her to dream again.

“My days go by and I think about the ‘what ifs,’” says Leigha, who was the student speaker during the graduation ceremony. “What if I were a school teacher, maybe a youth counselor? Who’s to say, maybe a salesperson for a rich corporation and all my hardships are over with. My feelings and dreams are as they always have been, and that is to help those in need.”

The Roadmap to Success program, which holds graduation ceremonies for a new class every month, is just one of many ways Seattle-based Pioneer helps formerly incarcerated individuals or those in recovery and need of treatment. The nonprofit itself runs a diverse array of businesses. It is a supplier to the Boeing Co.; offers a range of manufacturing services; runs a commercial kitchen that produces meals for a variety of clients; and operates a construction business that specializes in renovation projects for low-income housing providers.

Last year the nonprofit, which recorded almost $83 million in revenue, produced more than 2 million aerospace parts, prepared more than 1,000 meals a day and helped build three housing centers in partnership with a dozen agencies. All told, it served almost 8,700 individuals.

For Chief Executive Officer Karen Lee, the organization has fostered a deep understanding of the challenges facing those who’ve endured trauma, the need for nonjudgmental support and a second chance. Formerly incarcerated people are 10 times more likely to be homeless, and the unemployment rate for those with criminal histories is 27%, according to

“Whether it’s addiction, incarceration, bad choices, difficult upbringing, difficult parents, whatever tragedy and trauma that’s been there is behind you as far as we’re concerned,” says Lee, a former West Point cadet who has served as Pioneer’s CEO since 2010. “We don’t think it’s fair for people to hold your past against you.”

It’s easy to become numb observing the transient and homeless populations throughout King County. But as Lee told the graduating class, “Spread the goodness.”

There’s a lot of it. You just need to keep an open mind.

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