It wasn't your typical job fair.
More than 60 people came to the event in Biddeford Thursday in the hopes of finding an employer willing to give them a chance. These job seekers are all in recovery for substance use disorders.
The job fair itself was on the ground floor of the Pepperell Mill in Biddeford. But those who needed a little extra confidence before they met with potential employers first stopped at Tulu Salon on the second floor for a free haircut.
“Ya know, I needed a little boost, ya know, and say I'm ok, ya know,” Rose St. George says before getting her haircut.
St. George, of South Portland, has been in recovery for drug addiction for about three years. She says she has been out of a job for awhile, but she relishes the idea of what working would mean for her.
"Freedom, ya know? Being able to get up in the morning and go to work and be productive again in society,” she says.
After salon owner Tara Johnson finishes drying St. George's hair, it is time to give the job search a try.
Downstairs, 27 employers have set up booths. They are offering positions that range from food and customer service to manufacturing and manual work.
“Hello! You're hiring? I'm trying to get back out there.”
Kimberly Nichols of Biddeford stops at the Goodwill booth. She's been in recovery from alcohol addiction for four months. She's been looking for work for three, and says she is starting to feel desperate.
"I've filled out several applications with nothing happening, so I'm thinking because of my past, it's preventing me from getting employment,” Nichols says.
It's a problem that Tim Cheney of ENSO Recovery says is common. He himself is in long-term recovery for a substance use disorder.
"We're sort of the 21st century lepers,” Cheney says.
Cheney says employers often reject job applicants who are in recovery because they have arrest records related to their substance use disorder. He hopes the job fair, organized by ENSO, York County Sheriff Bill King and Independent representative Martin Grohman of Biddeford, will help employers view these job seekers differently: not as people with a criminal history, but as people with a health issue, where community support is part of the long-term treatment.
"You cannot sustain your recovery if you don't have employment, don't have housing, don't have a sense of belonging, don't have a sense of community,” Cheney says. “These are essential."
Some businesses at the job fair have already sought out employees in recovery. They account for about 10 percent of the workforce at Holy Donut, says general manager Sean Longtin.
"They're dedicated, they want to get a new start on life, so they're looking just for an opportunity, and we're happy to give that to them,” says Longtin.
Lark Pitts of Portland-based Paradigm Windows says the company has also had success employing people in recovery. She has 12 positions to fill, and a couple hours into the job fair, she had nine interviews lined up.
"It's good to have people that want to work," Pitts says.
One of those job hopefuls is Abner Clarkson of Waterboro. He's in recovery from a heroin addiction and is currently serving a sentence at the York County Jail. The sheriff arranged for Clarkson and other inmates who will be released soon to attend the job fair or do Skype interviews to line up work.
"I mean that's a big thing,” says Clarkson. “It's not just because of the money, ya know. It gives you something to do during the day so you're not sitting on your hands and getting in trouble."
Lark Pitts of Paradigm invites Clarkson to come to their factory for an interview when he is released.
But not everyone at the fair finds success. Steve Bergeron of Biddeford has been in recovery for five years, and while he's interested in some of the jobs at the fair, there is a problem.
“I don't have any transportation to get there,” Bergeron says. “I lost my license.”
He's been searching for a job for six months, and says he will keep trying.
This story was originally published June 7, 2018 at 5:22 p.m. ET.