The first time William McCollum was released from prison, his mother pleaded with him to stop selling drugs.
But Mr. McCollum, who had had previous run-ins with the police, made no such promises. “Nobody’s going to help me,” Mr. McCollum recalled thinking those decades ago. “I screwed my life up so now I have to do what I have to do.”
On July 20, 2000, Mr. McCollum was arrested again in South Carolina and charged with a Class A felony: possession with intent to sell and distribute crack cocaine. The crime carried a 30-year prison sentence.
Early into his incarceration, after being transferred to Otisville Correctional Facility, Mr. McCollum encountered a drug kingpin whom he had idolized. He made an effusive introduction, only to be admonished for glamorizing the lifestyle that had led to their confinement.
Shaken, Mr. McCollum began attending a self-improvement program for inmates.
“It changed my whole mind-set,” Mr. McCollum, 55, said in a recent interview. “It helped me realize all my mistakes and accept my own faults.”
Before long, he was facilitating several programs that covered subjects including anger management, parenting and public speaking.
After his 2002 conviction, Mr. McCollum spent 17 years, 6 months and 13 days in prison. When he was released in the summer of 2019, he did not want to squander his freedom.
He knew his criminal record would be a hindrance to finding lucrative work. “A person like me, who would love to work a decent job, will never have the chance because of my criminal history,” Mr. McCollum said. “I can’t blame anybody but myself.”
But a career helping others seemed fitting after his experiences in prison, as well as achievable, so in March, he signed up to begin training to become a substance abuse counselor.
At the same time, he was living with his mother in Corona, Queens; making plans to marry his fiancée, who had waited for him for 18 years; and waiting for the training program to begin. Then the Covid-19 lockdown struck New York. The abrupt halt in his progress was a nasty sting.
New York City’s economy has been hit hard by the pandemic, with the unemployment rate around 20 percent. Mr. McCollum, who receives $165 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, had done odd jobs to get by.
With his dream of becoming a counselor paused, Mr. McCollum turned to his parole officer for help finding work, which brought him to the Hope Program, an affiliate of Community Service Society. The society is a beneficiary agency of The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.
The Hope Program offers job training to adults in marginalized and underserved communities, including those with criminal backgrounds. When the lockdown began, the program switched to a remote curriculum and lent laptops to participants so they could continue courses and connect to online job boards, said Linda Nguyen, director of digital literacy.
As Mr. McCollum’s job search continued, the society used $358 in Neediest Cases funds to buy a laptop for him, freeing up a loaner for another Hope Program client.
Mr. McCollum said that he recently started moving to re-enroll in counselor training, while also pursuing more stable paying work.
“I keep striving and trying to do the right thing,” he said. “But doors got to be open, chances got to be given.”
Another beneficiary agency of The Fund, Brooklyn Community Services, has also been using Neediest Cases Fund money this year to support people whose lack of access to technology stalled job hunts.
Nia Davis, 18, was looking forward to graduating from high school and starting to work in 2020, after spending the bulk of her teenage years in the city shelter system with her family. She had shuffled through high schools, where she said she faced bullying from peers and apathy from teachers.
Last year, after enrolling at the Brooklyn High School for Leadership and Community Service, a transfer school for students struggling in traditional schools that is operated by Brooklyn Community Services, Ms. Davis found the support she needed.
In April, shortly before graduation, Ms. Davis’s mother died of a heart attack. It was a painful setback for Ms. Davis, who had battled emotional demons for years.
“I’m used to using anything bad to make me feel bad,” she said. “But her death was a wake-up call. I realized what she’d been saying for years, to get it together because she’s not always going to be here.”
Not only did Ms. Davis graduate in June, but she did so having completed an Occupational Safety and Health Administration training program. While Ms. Davis looks for a job, she is also relying on technology to help her move toward her long-term goal: becoming an art therapist.
In that role, she wants to help others learn to reveal themselves. “I’m not a person who’s good with expressing feelings,” Ms. Davis said. “I feel like art is a really good way to do that.”
She received help from Brooklyn Community Services, which used $1,242 in Neediest Cases funds to buy her an Apple laptop, software and digital-art lessons. Ms. Davis aims to start college next spring.
“I don’t know what kind of job this young woman will get, but I hope it’s one where she is able to help others in the same way that she has been helped,” said Janelle Farris, executive director and president of Brooklyn Community Services.
Ms. Davis, who lives with her brother in subsidized housing in Brownsville, is hopeful about her job prospects, especially as New York City continues loosening restrictions put in place during the pandemic.
“If this year hadn’t existed, I wouldn’t have known my full ability,” Ms. Davis said. “I wouldn’t have known what I was capable of.”