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Priority partnership with TCC offers nonviolent offenders a second chance

Two years ago, TJ Sexton and Ahmad Bilal lived in jail. Today, both are employed full time making more than $50,000 annually.

They are two of the inaugural graduates from the Priority Technical Training Center (PTTC), a program launched in 2018 by Tidewater Community College, Priority Automotive and the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office to give nonviolent offenders a new lease on life.

“Teaching nonviolent offenders to make a good, honest living and put their past in the rearview mirror is good for our communities, good for our law enforcement agencies, and good for Priority,” said Dennis Ellmer, chief executive officer and president of Priority Automotive. “This may seem like an unlikely partnership, but it just makes perfect sense.”

Built and funded entirely by Priority, the state-of-the-art automotive training center opened with dealerships across the country scrambling to find highly skilled auto technicians to service vehicles that grow more technologically advanced by the day.

Program participants were incarcerated at the Norfolk jail and bused to the facility five days a week for classroom instruction and on-the-job training. The year-long program boasts 27 graduates from the first two cohorts. Twenty four of those graduates, after their release from jail, are employed full-time at Priority dealerships.

Ray Mattox, the fixed operations director at Priority Chevrolet in Chesapeake, recalls a time when the PTTC grads working there now couldn’t turn a wrench.

“When they started, I paired them with a mentor technician to be sure they were learning the skills correctly,” Mattox said. “Today, they are high performers in our service centers, and I absolutely don’t know what I would do without them.”

Program graduate Sexton notes that his living situation is 10 times better now, calling the program the biggest blessing of his life.

“This is my second chance,” he said. “I didn’t know how I was going to get to this place that I pretty much dreamed about. I live in a nice apartment. I’m building my credit and I have three cars. But the best part is that I have a job I enjoy and stability like never before.”

Troy Clifton, executive director of Priority Toyota Charity Bowl, is the program coordinator and unofficial cheerleader.

“Make no mistake, these are my guys. I may wear a suit, but they know they can trust me, and I’m going to go to bat for them,” Clifton said. “I’m gratified at how well the trainees bought into the program and how well the mentors and coworkers have supported them.”

“I didn’t think I’d have this life, and I have no idea where I’d be without the program,” added program grad Bilal. “Every day, I can take what I’ve learned and pay it forward. That means a lot to me.”

Upon completion of the program, PTTC graduates have the opportunity to continue their education, earn new certifications and an Associate of Applied Science in Automotive Technology from TCC.

A state Senate joint resolution recently commended Ellmer for initiation and execution of the PTTC. Ellmer and Priority Automotive invested more than $2 million to establish the inmate training program. The program is on hold due to COVID-19 but is expected to resume in the future.

Priority Automotive CEO Dennis Ellmer (center) was recognized with a Senate joint resolution for creating the Priority Technical Training Center.