Lorenzo Stewart Sr. was done trying to make fast cash selling drugs. He wanted a legitimate job. But he must use a wheelchair after being struck in the back by a stray bullet when he was 15. And he had a record of convictions on drug-related offenses.
“I tried to get so many jobs through the years, and nothing solid ever came through,” said Stewart, 41, who spent years in and out of jail after graduating from Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington. Then last year, something changed. “My son was turning 12, and I wasn’t trying to go back to jail.”
Stewart decided to try something different. He enrolled in a small-business training program called Aspire, which was set up by D.C. Deputy Mayor Courtney R. Snowden and operated by the two agencies she oversees: the Department of Employment Services (DOES) and the Department of Small and Local Business Development.
In December, after getting a business license and small-business loan, he started a transportation service for the disabled and elderly. It’s called VOW Transportation. The initials stand for Vision of Winning.
“I knew my only route was to be my own boss,” Stewart said. “I had experienced the difficulties of trying to get around when you’re confined to a wheelchair. There’s a shortage of quality transportation services for disabled people. So, doing something about that became my passion.”
Today, his company operates three 15-seat vans and employs three drivers and a dispatcher. He recently contracted with Medical Transportation Management, a national nonemergency transportation service provider. That means more vans and more employees by year’s end.
Stewart had been one of 25 ex-offenders enrolled in the newly created small-business training program. Of that number, 19 have started businesses — such as janitorial services, grounds maintenance and hair salons.
“It’s true that when we give returning citizens the right set of skills and opportunities, they will flourish,” Snowden said. “And they will hire people who, like them, have experienced barriers to being employed.”
About 32,000 formerly incarcerated people live in the District. Hundreds if not thousands more return each year. About 26 percent are considered employable but unemployed, Snowden said. And about 27 percent are considered “unemployable,” a wide-ranging category that includes those who are disabled, in school or back in prison.
The District has many programs aimed at helping them get back on their feet. There’s even a temporary jobs program at the D.C. jail.
“Our budget allows us to think more creatively and align our resources across the government,” Snowden said.
Stewart had taken advantage of the services, but only after he was willing to change. Just being in a wheelchair had not been enough. He continued selling drugs for years after being shot. Eventually, he grew tired of it.
“A lot of my inner circle was in jail or had been murdered,” he said. “The police, the robbers, it all became one big headache. I had to change my mind-set and wash my hands of it.”
Growing up, his mentors had been bank robbers and carjackers. Once he decided to make a change, he met Charles Jones, deputy director of DOES who had helped to start a jobs program for returning citizens called Project Empowerment.
“I knew I had some business skills from being on the streets,” Stewart said. “But I didn’t know how to use them for legitimate purposes. I knew I wanted to help disabled people get better transportation service. I wanted to be a part of a solution to a problem instead of just being the problem.”
Jones helped to guide him to the resources he needed to start a business. A loving family, including a young son who looked up to him, strengthened his resolve.
He got a business license and enough start-up capital to lease vans, buy route optimization equipment and hire employees. He personally oversees the training of his drivers and often rides with them.
Stewart also provides transportation to prisons that are within a few hundred miles of the District. The federal government houses inmates from the city, and they are scattered in facilities throughout the country. The transportation service is free, offered in gratitude for being given a second chance and with appreciation for the importance of family support.
But the demand is so high that he wants to buy a bus. What he needs is a transportation contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
For now, however, his focus is on providing disabled people and the elderly with the kind of transportation service he could not get when searching for a job. Perhaps it was for the best that he could not find a job. It forced him to make one for himself.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.