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A redemption story: From prison and gang life to United Way's new community coordinator

Jose Rivera
Laura McHugh
United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley
Jose Rivera is United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley's new community engagement coordinator.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Jose Rivera has never shied away from his story. Instead, he leans into it.

The 52-year-old Allentown man has experienced gang life, addiction, prison and now – redemption.

Throughout the last five years, Rivera has been rebuilding his life and giving back to the community that’s helped him along the way.

In his newest role, Rivera is now the community engagement coordinator at United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley, where he helps connect families with food, housing, education and more.

“We’re actually out there walking the streets and going to events and having conversations with our community members, trying to find out what are the most important needs right now,” he said.

Since Rivera started on the job in May, he has been helping residents of Lehigh, Northampton and Carbon counties navigate the resources available to them through United Way's partner organizations.

“A lot of his role is around relationship building,” said Marci Martinez-Howey, United Way’s associate vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Luckily, that’s a skill Rivera has been honing for years in part because of his vulnerability and willingness to share his personal journey with others.

A lot of his role is around relationship building.
Marci Martinez-Howey, United Way’s associate vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Personal journey

That journey first began in New York City in the 1970s.

Rivera was born in Spanish Harlem and spent his early days in The Bronx. He was raised by a single mother; he never knew his father, he said.

By the early 80s, Rivera and his mother had moved to Allentown, where his grandparents lived.

As a young teenager, Rivera was deeply impacted by the deaths of his grandfather and uncle. He started selling marijuana and became a member of the Latin Kings. Though he attended Allentown schools, Rivera never graduated.

In 1992, Rivera was incarcerated for the first time on his 18th birthday. He was in and out of prison for the next 27 years – mostly for various drug crime convictions. Rivera also struggled with addiction himself.

“With the gangs, they accepted me for who I was,” Rivera said. “I didn’t have to impress nobody. This is what I did. And going to prison just enforced it more.”

But eventually, Rivera started making decisions to turn his life around.

He entered recovery from his drug addiction and began to prioritize learning.

While incarcerated, Rivera earned his GED diploma and started working toward his associate’s degree.

After doing my time away, I came back, I wanted to do something different.
Jose Rivera, Community Engagement Coordinator at United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley

Shortly after he left prison for the last time in 2019, Rivera finished up his two-year degree at Lehigh Carbon Community College. He then earned a bachelor’s degree in business from Muhlenberg College.

His education was funded in part by a federal Second Chance Pell Grant for incarcerated people.

“After doing my time away, I came back, I wanted to do something different,” Rivera said.

Life after prison

After his release, Rivera got heavily involved as a volunteer with Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley, an anti-violence nonprofit organization. Eventually, he became a staff member, holding various operations and community roles over the next couple of years.

“Jose is indicative of what happens when we remove the barriers and allow the community that we serve to be decision-makers in spaces,” said Hasshan Batts, executive director of Promise Neighborhoods.

Rivera helped lead the organization’s health equity work during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when Promise Neighborhoods distributed 190,000 diapers to families in the region.

Jose Rivera 2
Courtesy of Laura McHugh
United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley
In 2019, Jose Rivera, right, began volunteering at Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley, which Hasshan Batts, left, leads as executive director. Rivera later joined Promise Neighborhoods' staff.

And when gang conflicts would erupt, Rivera mediated them as one of the nonprofit's credible messengers.

Rivera is respected and trusted in the community because of his own experiences, Batts said, making him apt for the role.

Rivera said his phone would sometimes ring at 2 a.m., and to help de-escalate community conflicts, he would walk from Allentown’s West End to Center City.

“Would I be upset? Yeah. But I also knew if I didn't go…there was no one else who was going to go out and respond,” he said. “That’s how I built my reputation. They were like, ‘Call him, he’ll show up.’”

Credible messengers like Rivera help prevent violence when neighbors are too scared to call the police, he said, referencing his past work.

Community members “had a direct contact that they knew they could talk to.”

“They weren’t being judged and they weren’t being put up on a witness stand,” he said.

Youth have solutions for anti-violence work

In recent years, Rivera has also spent time working with youth, who he said are essential in ant-violence work.

“We need to talk to them young,” he said. “We need to include them in the solution.”

Rivera has worked as a chess instructor through a program with Big Happy Consultants, owned by his mentor Pas Simpson, who has watched Rivera’s journey since 2019. Simpson worked at Promise Neighborhoods when Rivera first began volunteering there.

“Jose is very good, especially with those youth who have been incarcerated, who are going down the wrong path,” Simpson said. “He can relate and tell them what happens next and how bad it can get. He’s not going to sugarcoat it for them.”

Rivera has also served as a program coordinator for the youth arts and mental wellness nonprofit organization, Fine Feather Foundation. Most recently, he has been a mentor with the nonprofit’s Far From Fatherless Program for young men and boys who don't have male role models in their lives.

Andrene Brown-Nowell, executive director of Fine Feather Foundation, said Rivera’s vulnerability encourages the boys in the program to follow his lead.

Rivera’s youth work is also informed by his own experience of having sometimes distanced relationships with his seven children. However, he’s now present in their lives, he said.

“In my 50s, I’m learning to be a father,” Rivera added.

Jose Rivera 3
Courtesy of Pas Simpson
Pas Simpson
Jose Rivera, left, and Pas Simpson, right, first met when the two both worked at Promise Neighborhoods. They've continued doing youth mentoring and community work together.

Building emotional skills

Brown-Nowell said Rivera shows the boys and young men in the program that it’s OK to show your emotions.

“We need more men like Jose to model that type of behavior,” said Brown-Nowell, who is also president of the Allentown School Board.

Rivera said he’s still improving his social-emotional skills after the trauma of years spent in prison.

He's constantly working to better himself, he added.

Rivera is grateful for the community leaders who've invested in him, he said. They're part of what keeps him from falling back into old habits.

“We need more men like Jose to model that type of behavior."
Andrene Brown-Nowell, Executive Director of Fine Feather Foundation

“I’ve worked hard,” he said. “I’ve grown and I’ve matured and I’ve learned to listen to others.

"I don’t ever want these people who poured their hearts out and gave me their time to feel like a punchline, just like I don’t want to feel like a punchline," he added.

Brown-Nowell said Rivera's new job at the United Way is the culmination of all his hard work — a reminder of how far he's come and a testament to the power of second chances.

“I think that is the success story,” she said. "That is the redemption story of Jose."