Derek Tucker had always been good at cars – a skill he learned at an early age. But it wasn’t until he got out of jail that he started thinking about his talent as a career option.

“The older guys told me I had a lot of potential,” he said, remembering how he first learned about repairing vehicles. “At the time, I was doing my drug thing and I didn’t want to get my hands dirty. But I sat there and watched them and absorbed.”

After he came home from jail, he began servicing neighbors’ cars from a makeshift repair shop behind his house. (He bought a mechanic’s shirt at a flea market because, as he explained, “you can’t be charging $200 or $300 in a hoodie.”) Tucker pieced together other work, too. Someone gave him a pick-up truck, and he started scrapping metal. He got his driver’s license reinstated and took a job at the port.

But when a family member told him about a Halethorpe-based program called Vehicles for Change, which offers formerly incarcerated people training, an internship and connections to auto-repair jobs, he wanted in. Catholic Charities offered him that chance.

A pathway from resume prep to a dream job

In 2019, Tucker started at a Catholic Charities workforce development site at St. Edward’s Church in West Baltimore. The agency’s program begins with two weeks of job-readiness classes, including resume writing, interview skills and other vital competencies for the job market. Those who are interested can then move on to automotive repair – a three-month Automotive Service Excellence program that Catholic Charities co-hosts with Vehicles for Change. A handful of graduates of that training, which focuses on brakes, are invited to stay on to become certified ASE master technicians. Tucker was one of those selected.

Kevin Creamer, Catholic Charities’ program manager for workforce development, said Tucker’s drive stood out.

Derek Tucker, working on a car at the Full Circle garage in Baltimore

“He’s a tremendous talent. He’s been passionate about cars and working in that space for much of his life,” Creamer said. “He was looking for an opportunity to do what he loves, with some supports. It was really just a matter of moving stuff out of his way so he could do this.”

“God had another plan for me”

The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the agency’s workforce-development classes, forcing the job-readiness portion to a virtual model, and the lease on the St. Edward’s space expired in 2020. But the workforce development program, which is based at Our Daily Bread Employment Center, will continue working with partners to expand options for community-level access to opportunities. Expecting people to find training programs and navigate unreliable transportation just isn’t reasonable, Creamer explained.

“You might take for granted that growing up as a youth, you could work in a movie theater,” he said. “That same equivalent doesn’t exist in the neighborhoods where we work. Individuals didn’t have those opportunities presented to them. They had to fight for that access.”

Tucker started his training program ready for that fight.

“I was getting better grades than anybody because I went in there with a drive. I went in there with a purpose,” he said.

Vehicles for Change hired him in a full-time position at the Full Circle Auto Repair and Training Center on Greenmount Avenue in Baltimore City, a job that has included mentoring new trainees, drumming up business and fixing cars. Tucker said he was honored to hear that managers had asked around to decide who would be best for the position, and his name had come up repeatedly.

“I didn’t know I was putting out that kind of energy. I was basically trying to do my thing. God had another plan for me,” he said.