By Cherri Gregg

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — At age 58, J. Jondhi Harrell spent half of his years living a life of crime.

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“I was incarcerated for 18 years for bank robbery,” he says.   “Very early in my sentence I had to figure out how I could change myself, to ensure that when I got another chance at freedom, I would not fail.”

While in prison, Harrell surrounded himself with positive men who served as mentors, then he began mentoring others.   He says the experience laid the foundation for when he returned to society.

When Harrell was released from prison in 2009, he had an associate degree.  He enrolled in the Ex-Offender Re-Entry Program at Goodwill Industries of Southern New Jersey and Philadelphia.  Harrell used his part-time, transitional employment with Goodwill to propel him to other opportunities.

Now, he works for Pathways to Housing, has a bachelor’s degree, and is working on his master’s degree at Temple University.

 “We find housing for the homeless veterans,” says Harrell, who is a housing coordinator for the Pathways organization.   He also uses his life as an example for others through his nonprofit organization, The Center for Returning Citizens.

“What we teach here at TCRC is that you have an obligation to yourself, to your family, and to your community,” says Harrell.  “You have to start with change within yourself, then help ensure your family lives the best life they can.  Then you have to give back to your community.”

He says his group has helped more than 200 men and women reintegrate into society.

“I’ve had guys who called me and said, ‘Hey, man, I don’t want to do this anymore, I’m about to do a home invasion– I need money now,’ ” Harrell recalls, “and you literally have to talk them off a cliff.”

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Harrell’s hard work and efforts to “pay it forward” won him the Goodwill Industries International’s “Graduate of the Year” award, which came with a $5,000 check.

Since then, his organization is gaining momentum.  Harrell plans to open several counseling centers near Broad and Erie later this month.  He says the goal is to build a community for the city’s roughly 300,000 ex-offenders.

“Our vision is to link as many ex-offenders, returning citizens, into a network,” he says.  “With our numbers, if we were to unite, we would be a social force, a cultural force, and a political force in this city.”

For more on the Center for Returning Citizens, go to or call 215-305-8793.


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