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Operation New Hope CEO to retire 23 years after founding organization dedicated to giving ex-cons a second chance at life

Kevin Gay is retiring after leading the non-profit for the last 23 years. He's given thousands of ex-offenders a second chance through his organization.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — We battle insecurities everyday. 

When we look at our children. When we look in the mirror. Everyone has their battle.

"Empathy versus sympathy. When you've experienced things yourself, it puts you in a better position when you're talking to other people about, 'I understand what you're going through," Operation New Hope founder, Kevin Gay, said. 

Kevin Gay is retiring after leading the non-profit for the last 23 years. He's given thousands of ex-offenders a second chance through his organization.

Gay gave up his career as an insurance executive in corporate America to create the non-profit two decades ago, not out of sympathy, but because he too had that internal fight.

"Addiction to alcohol, the addiction part of it that seeps into your being, it erodes confidence," Gay said.

Gay would go on mission trips through his church, often searching for a greater purpose in life. Little did he know, that purpose was right next door.

"A priest gave me this ultimate challenge one day...asked the question "when are guys like you going to get it?" Gay said. 

"What she was trying to say was what a lot of us look for is that wakeup call when are you going to realize there are things to be done in our own city that require all of us getting behind. That really put me on a journey of discovery," Gay said. 

From there, Gay ventured to parts of Jacksonville he had only driven through, such as the Northwest side of town. He spent time learning from people in the communities and seeing their struggles. 

Experiences that spawned Operation New Hope and two decades of fighting for himself and countless others.

Credit: Andrew Badillo
Shawn Ashe (left), Kevin Gay (center), and Crystal Chisolm (right) in the lobby of Operation New Hope.

"I thought my life was over, I thought for the rest of my life I was going to grow old and die in prison," Operation New Hope graduate, Crystal Chisolm, said. 

"I can remember telling my mom prior to my 18th birthday that if I was going to continue living like this, I'd rather not live," Shawn Ashe, another graduate, said. 

Ash has been to prison three times for theft related crimes he committed to finance his drug addiction. 

Chisolm served 10 years for armed robbery. 

The two used to look in the mirror and see a person who wasn't good enough, a person who could not succeed.

Until Gay and Operation New Hope came into their lives.

"I had housing, I had the ready to work program. So I got the job skills the communication skills that I needed," Ashe said. 

Since graduating the program, the two have risen to become managers at their respective companies.

For Ashe, it's opened a door that he thought would be closed forever, a chance to be a dad. 

Ashe said he was too high to be at the hospital when his son was born and too hungover the next day to accept him as his son. 

It was a grueling migraine that haunted him for 13 years. Operation New Hope proved to be the right cure.

"I met him about a month and a half ago for the first time in the 13 years of his life. I can't even put into words, amazing, overwhelming, fulfilling, beautiful. The list can just go on and on," Ashe said. 

Credit: Andrew Badillo
Shawn Ashe and his son pictured on the first day they met, 13 years after Ashe's son was born.

Two decades ago, Gay looked in a mirror and saw a man looking for purpose. Now he sees ex-offenders become managers, drug addicts become dads, and a piece of him in every single story of hope.

"You know, the reality of it is this program and the people that I've had the chance to work with have really helped me. It's a beautiful thing how life works, you know," Gay said. 

Operation New Hope President, Reggie Fullwood will take over as CEO when Gay retires on June 30. 

Fullwood will manage day-to-day operations. He previously served as the organization's Chief Operations Officer and Program Director. 

Operation New Hope says its programs help meet local workforce demands and improve the economy by lowering unemployment by challenging stigmas and promoting hiring practices that help meet diversity, equity, and inclusion goals of their employment partners.

The organization says investments in Operation New Hope help save taxpayers millions of dollars by avoiding repeated high costs of incarceration, dramatically improve public safety and reunite families. 

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