“What I like about Scrabble is the stimulation. I literally feel the synapse systems firing in my brain as I think through the tens of thousands of Scrabble words and mnemonic devices I’ve memorized. I could drop that seven letter word there, but if my opponent takes that spot then I’m looking for a secondary or tertiary place that I can put to maximize my scorage.”
That’s Miguel talking about Scrabble, and for those of us who are novices at the game, the conversation will blow your mind. His strategy, his advice and his collection of over 100,000 flashcards he created show just how much care, energy and strategy can go into this game. And he loves sharing the game with others. In prison, he had a Scrabble rivalry with a fellow inmate and kept challenging him to get better: “At first, I was destroying him. But he kept at it and his game was getting really good. By the time I left prison about six months later, his game was like, “Wow!”.
This love for learning, determination, and support for peers isn’t unique to Miguel’s Scrabble game; it’s a part of who he is and what he brings to any environment he is a part of, whether it was his University schoolwork in prison, his work on the farm at Growing Home – or his current role as Medical Transporter for Shield Illinois.
Prior to Growing Home, Miguel served a very long 23 years in prison. During that time, he dedicated himself to learning, growing and healing, especially with the assistance of professors through The Education Justice Project. EJP is a comprehensive college-in-prison program out of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that Miguel gives credit for his ability to write, think critically and analyze politics and government in our society. Miguel even had the opportunity to co-author a journal article about the positive value of teaching Critical Race Theory in prison spaces!
PATH TO GROWING HOME
When Miguel was released from prison, his parole officer recommended Growing Home. Unsure what to expect, Miguel gave it a try, primarily convinced by the stipend. Miguel immediately brought his team attitude and love of learning and critical analysis from his EJP days to Growing Home. Ursula, Growing Home Training Specialist, shares that Miguel “displayed dedication and a desire to share his knowledge with others everyday in class.” Anna, Farm Educator, was so grateful for Miguel’s work on the farm: “From the start, Miguel came in and became part of the team, very naturally. He was patient and worked hard – and helped us get through some really hard work in the hoop houses at that time of year.”
In return, Miguel found essential professional and personal lessons – and a lifetime supportive network at Growing Home. “This is the most comprehensive program as far as job preparedness goes that I’ve actually been involved in,” Miguel shares. Not only does he point to the mock interviews, elevator pitch, Roots of Success curriculum and the computer and internet skills, but also the webinars and seminars with employer partners: “I remember a seminar we had with Fifth Third Bank where the woman was telling us the pitfalls of hitting a sketchy link and the benefits of identity theft protection. Most of the time, this is something that we get out of prison and learn the hard way. But Growing Home taught us this.”
And then there was the support network and the team atmosphere, cultivated both from the on-the-job training on the farm as well as through relationships with staff. As Miguel shared, “[Growing Home] really welcomed me at a time when I really needed it. I needed somebody to reinforce me my positive outlook because I was at a low point.” Miguel isn’t unfamiliar with farm work; growing up, his family had to resort to migrant farm work where they traveled a lot – “and that really affected me when I was a kid because I didn’t really have much stability.” At Growing Home, Miguel found some of that stability with relationships with staff (Shout outs to Anna, Ezra, Zachary, Janelle, Zenobia and Ursula!) that he can depend on for a lifetime: “I just feel safe around them. When you’re there, [at Growing Home], it’s like an oasis, a sanctuary. And I can always go back, for references, events or just to say hi.”
And the last takeaway Miguel attributes to Growing Home? “Stick-to-it-iveness.” (Now that should be a Scrabble word). As he shares, the Growing Home staff taught me to “Just keep on. Just keep going. Don’t just put in one resume – put in a few. Line up a few interviews. You might not get every job but you are getting experiences from each interview and eventually you will find your way.” And Miguel has found his way. When his first jobs after Growing Home weren’t the best fit, Miguel didn’t give up. He stuck to it and kept his faith, receiving a call from Shield Illinois three months after his interview, letting him know he got the job as a Depot Associate which turned into a promotion to be a Medical Transporter, a job that he describes as “the most awesome job I’ve ever had.”
At Shield Illinois, not only does Miguel find himself in a positive workplace that also offers full healthcare coverage, he is allowed to take leadership roles and utilize his various skills and creativity on important projects. Most recently, Miguel was named Employee of the Month after he spearheaded the three-day essential transformation of a new Depot Space for sorting COVID-test results. His boss, Sue Pipal, Associate Director of Integration and Organizational Development Initiatives, was extremely grateful: “[Miguel] finished the floors at the new depot with epoxy using $500 worth of supplies when we were getting outrageous $26,000 quotes from vendors! He generously applied his many skills to make the Depot a better place.” Not only did Miguel get two pay raises and a promotion, it became one of his proudest professional moments.
And what is Miguel proud of in his personal life? His constant evolution, learning, and stability he’s been able to provide for himself: “I’m learning things every day. When I got out of prison, I didn’t even know how to use a debit card. Or the Internet. Or a shopping cart at Aldi with the coin dispenser. I was lost. But now, I’m learning many things at a time, keeping a level head and moving on. My ideology is much different now than before – or even right when I got out of prison. I’m evolving now, everyday.”
There are still worries in his life. Paying into Social Security, Medicare and retirement, which he’s just starting to do. But that stick-to-it-iveness, his dedication and willingness to keep learning, his connections from Growing Home and elsewhere – and his character and personality – give him optimism. He has great plans on the horizon such as getting his Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) and being able to drive cross country, continuing to volunteer in his community, and maybe even joining local Scrabble tournaments!
THANK YOU, MIGUEL AND GROWING HOME SUPPORTERS
Miguel – we can’t wait to see you continue to lead and grow in your next roles. Thank you for your collaboration, dedication and connection – and for teaching us as much as we have taught you. And to all of the Growing Home supporters, thank you for making our work possible and allowing us to intersect with incredible people such as Miguel – as if we were two interwoven words on a Scrabble board that make each other better through a shared letter – and shared life lessons.
We’ll leave this spotlight with advice we’ve learned from Miguel on how to create a positive workplace culture that allows anyone, regardless of background, to thrive: “I think it starts in the mind of the leader – and just showing a genuine interest in and respect for people. Saying ‘good morning’ or ‘how are you’ – and meaning it. And then encouraging your employees to be creative, to use their own agency, to think outside the box. When it’s a very restricted workplace, then there’s not much room to grow. But when you know that your boss is behind you – I can do something. I’m comfortable. And I can lead – and grow.”
Co-written November 2022, by Miguel Villarreal, 2021 Growing Home Alumni, and Megan Morrison, Marketing & Communications Coordinator at Growing Home