As published in Arbus Magazine, May 4, 2017:
Kevin Gay, Founder | Operation New Hope
Conversation with Laura Riggs
Photograph by Tiffany Manning
Kevin Gay is a Jacksonville native, music lover, art enthusiast, globetrotter, and second-chances champion. For nearly twenty years, he has dedicated his career to restoring blighted neighborhoods and helping people find hope. After graduating from the University of Florida, Kevin worked in the for-profit business sector for fifteen years before deciding to leave corporate life to start Operation New Hope, a neighborhood development non-profit organization providing access to affordable housing and aiding ex-offenders with reintegration into their communities.
It’s hard not to have a conversation with Kevin without it steering towards criminal justice reform. He is an ardent supporter of people as they rebuild their lives and the toll that mass incarceration takes on communities. Where some mistake incarceration as an effective deterrent, Kevin sees the system as a huge barrier obstructing sustainable economic development. Operation New Hope has created a model of rehabilitation and re-entry that helps people with the same needs, hopes, and dreams as anyone else: to get the job skills and employment opportunities they need to break free of the cycle of crime and poverty which holds too many in a death grip.
What inspired you to start a program like Operation New Hope?
I have felt a spiritual tug since I was a kid. While in corporate America, I would go on mission trips to help feed my desire to connect that calling. And it did, but it felt like something was missing. It wasn’t until my priest, Mother Davette Turk, challenged me to get out of my comfort zone. She emphasized that there was plenty of need right here in our city and prodded me to spend time on our Northside, then come back and tell her why I thought I needed to go to another continent to do important work. So, I accepted her challenge and, boy, did it impact me. Quite frankly, it made me realize that I had become so comfortable, and had developed blinders to what was happening in my own city. The result was leaving my job for the great opportunity to start Operation New Hope.
You began with the intention of restoring neighborhoods but quickly found that affordable housing wasn’t the only thing communities were missing. What came out of those early missteps?
We launched ONH in 1999, and the beauty of how we evolved was from that initial desire to develop a great mixed-income community development model. I am proud of the fact that over the past eighteen years, we have built close to one hundred homes for first-time homeowners. We have also provided credit counseling to thousands of families, along with emergency roof repair and weatherization to over one hundred and fifty families, and we recently developed a wonderful new multi-family apartment complex. All of this, while bringing an economic impact of about twenty-one million dollars to our city’s struggling urban core.
However, we found early on that successful community development is more than a bricks-and-mortar approach. We realized that unless we built value in the community, we wouldn’t be able to build value in the properties. We needed to support the community’s greatest asset – the people – or the neighborhoods couldn’t thrive. In 2000, we began a local program to hire in the areas where we were building; but learned that many had criminal records and were not able to get jobs. It was out of this that the Ready4Work program was born.