AVON PARK -- On a warm Saturday afternoon two days before Christmas, N'kosi Jones stood at The Sanctuary church in front of a table topped with dozens of gifts for children from all over Highlands County.
Jones, who was instrumental in getting the gift donations - many were from staff at Avon Park Youth Academy where Jones spends time with troubled youth - talked with each child. He then told them to pick out a gift, which could be a bicycle, a doll, a game or one of many other items.
Wearing a shirt with the message, "Elevate Your Game Higher," Jones had elevated his life and traveled a great distance from where he used to be.
When Jones told the parents that "I'm a eight-time convicted felon," it didn't seem to matter. Jones, who grew up in Lake Placid and Avon Park, credits finding Jesus as to why he successfully left a life of drugs and violence.
While he's found a job working with the transit department in Lakeland, he has struggled at times in the past to get work. And other ex-convicts face challenges in a tough economy getting employers to take a chance on them as opposed to other applicants with clean records.
Dekwan Robinson, who was 15 when he committed armed robbery, said after he was released from prison in 2003 he struggled finding employment. Sometime after being released, he said, he moved to Michigan and found work. But since he returned to Avon Park in April 2013 from Michigan to care for his ill grandmother, he's been unable to find a job.
Brown estimates that 80 to 85 percent of potential employers have rejected him because he has a record. But he believes that the record unfairly hurts his chances for a better tomorrow.
"I am not that person anymore," he said.
Donna Doubleday, president/chief executive officer of Heartland Workforce, said many ex-convicts are concerned whether their rap sheet will hurt their chances of getting a job.
"That's a valid concern," she said.
Doubleday said, however, that some Highlands County employers will take a chance. But some others are prohibited by law from hiring convicted felons, she said.
She, as well as authors of books and producers of videos for ex-cons, advise the former prisoners to be truthful about their time in prison and to take responsibility for what they did. But they should also focus on what they can offer the employer and the changes they've made in their lives rather than the past, the materials say.
Hiding a record is difficult, as many employers do background checks. Even if they don't, gaps on resumes raise red flags, Doubleday said.
In the past, she said, Heartland Workforce had programs to help ex-offenders get jobs, but funding is no longer available. They do have videos and books.
For Kim Tish, a Sebring resident, and her husband, the effort to earn enough money to pay the bills and meet the needs of her children has been a daily struggle. Her husband, who has misdemeanors on his record, has found temporary work through persistence.
It was only late last year that he's found a full time job.
Tish, who has felonies on her record, cleans houses and babysits children to make ends meet. But through attending courses at South Florida State College, she wants to eventually work helping addicts.
She's been sober for the past three years, she said, after years of using drugs, including methamphetamine. She created fake identification cards and wrote bogus checks to get the money to feed her habit, she said. Her record primarily includes convictions for the identity fraud.
Tish said attending a recovery program, becoming a Christian and gaining self-confidence helped. Many leave without any self-confidence and for them, "there's no way to go, but back where you came from and so the cycle starts all over again," she said.
At times in looking for jobs, she said, she's felt her record hampered her chances. "They can choose between you and the person with the clean record," she said.
"I've completed progressive steps to strengthen my life, but I still have those convictions," she said.
Jones recalled similar challenges. After growing up in Highlands County, he said, he moved to Atlanta in 1986 and was in prison by 1991, after having committed armed robbery at the age of 18.
When he got out of prison, he found a decent job. But when his supervisor became ill, everything soured. He got a new boss and "once he found out I had a background, he was real harsh on me," Jones said.
After leaving that job, Jones had trouble finding work and eventually turned to selling drugs to support his family. He ended up back in prison. But in 2000, he said, "I gave my life to Christ."
Jones, who said he received clemency from former Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007 and earned two college degrees, now helps ex-offenders in Polk and Highlands County. He said he educates them on methods that will help bring about a successful job interview. Among other venues he meets with youth at Avon Park Youth Academy, where a riot last year closed the facility for several days.
"I can relate to them," he said. "I can tell them, I've been in your shoes. I've been a delinquent."
In between performances during a Christian rap concert, Jones recently told youth at Avon Park Youth Academy that, "I can see a part of myself in all of you."
At the time he moved toward becoming a Christian, he said, "I just got tired of going to jail. It's called insanity if you do the same thing over and over."
One youth, who was allowed to be interviewed on stipulation his name not be used, called the event "awesome."
"He's been in our shoes," he said. "He knows what we're talking about."
In Lake Placid, Sammy Telesco, who works with youth at his Str8up ministry, said he's faced the challenges after serving time in prison for multiple bank robberies. He said, though, he's confident that ex-cons can find jobs. Although many of those jobs may provide low salaries, Telesco said, the work provides a chance to strive for better opportunities.
Telesco said through his prior work experience he got work in Avon Park at a tire shop. He worked for a few years, and while he was grateful for the second chance and the way he was treated, he left because he saw the need for a youth ministry.
Many ex-cons could get started on the right path, but their attitudes get in the way, he said.
The problem is many of the ex-cons without skills or experience don't want to start with low-paying jobs or they bring an attitude to the interview, he said.
But with a change in attitude, he said, they can find jobs.
"If you're sincere and want to do the right thing, someone wants to give you the chance," he said.