Celebrating the International Community at JCDC
The Jackson County Department of Corrections has become a great example of diversity in the workplace by hiring associates who have come from around the world. This is a series of stories celebrating that diversity and spotlighting staff from a number of nations. Director Diana Turner said, “I think our diversity here at JCDC is one of our greatest strengths and I’m really glad we are getting this opportunity to share it with the rest our colleagues in the County and the community we serve.”
Irina Smirnova: Support Services Technician
TUESDAY, JANUARY 29, 2019
Hoping to provide a better life for her and her son, Irina Smirnova left St. Petersburg, Russia to move to the United States in 2007.
Irina and her son first settled in Montana where she found a job doing housekeeping at a hotel.
“I could hardly speak English and first worked at a hotel because it is one of the few jobs that I could have with my limited English,” she said. Irina then went to work as an aide on a school bus. “Talking with the kids on the school bus and to co-workers helped me learn English.”
While living in Montana the family bought a German Shepherd puppy. She drove across the country to North Carolina to pick it up and “to see the beauty of the United States,” she said. “With the puppy we drove short distances all of the time because he was small. We stayed two nights in Kansas City in August. It was so beautiful and so green with flowers. I really did like it.”
Four years ago, Irina decided to move away from Montana to some place in the middle of the country. They decided to make the move to Kansas City.
“I was only here once before and loved it,” she said. “When I was thinking where I wanted to go I decided to go to Kansas City. From the beginning we loved it. It was a big opportunity for me and for my son who wants to be a doctor. Here there are more opportunities. This is why we came, and it is beautiful.”
When she moved to Blue Springs, Irina transferred her job with the bus company to the Blue Springs School District as an aide working on a bus with special needs children. A friend who works at the detention center suggested Irina also go to work for the center. She is now a Support Services Technician with the Corrections Department.
“I take a lot of pride in maintaining cleanliness and good appearance of my work place,” she said. “Helping the officers and other employees do their job in a healthy and clean environment.”
Irina said she works with a team which has given her the chance to get to know a lot of her coworkers. “Working with many amazing people from many different cultures always makes work enjoyable and pleasant."
Working at the center has given her a lot of self-confidence and she plans to continue learning, growing and working there. “I want to learn as much as I can.”
“Moving to America has opened a lot of amazing opportunities.”
Samuel Jaidah: Inmate Services Coordinator
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 9, 2019
During the 1990s the African country of Liberia was in the midst of a lengthy civil war. To escape the ravages of the war, a young boy and his grandmother were among those who fled the country.
At the age of ten Samuel Jaidah moved from Zwedru Liberia to the Ivory Coast where his grandmother had grown up. He had been raised by his mother’s mother from a young age, but saw his parents on a regular basis.
Jaidah said growing up in Liberia was difficult because of the war. Living in the Ivory Coast was better, but still had its difficulties.
“Growing up in the Ivory Coast was challenging because it was a French speaking country. Liberia is officially an English speaking country so there was a language barrier and I had to learn the language,” he said. “After I got adjusted to the system it was not difficult, because my grand mom is from there.”
The worst part for Jaidah was not being able to see his parents on a regular basis. “I missed my parents because I never had the chance to see them very often. They were in Liberia or seeking refuge somewhere. I didn’t see them until 2001, so it was difficult not seeing them.” When he was living in Liberia with his grandmother, they would go visit his mom or go see his dad. “Then when we moved to the Ivory Coast, the war made it so everyone went their separate way so I didn’t see them for a long time.”
While studying at the University of Cote d’Ivoire Jaidah saw an advertisement that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was seeking translators. Being literate in five languages he decided to apply. He passed the exam and was hired as a contractor for the United Nations for nine months.
After the nine months were up he was retained for three years until moving to Norway to study. “I applied for a grant to continue my education. Because of the job I had to stop school and they told me that since I was also a refuge they could give me asylum to go to Norway. I took that opportunity to go,” he said.
Jaidah had gone to Norway to study but was having a difficult time since most of the class work was in Norwegian. Despite the language barrier he earned an associate’s degree as an administrative assistant and learned to speak Norwegian.
After earning his degree in Norway his boss told him he should go to the United States to continue his education and suggested a degree in criminal justice. Jaidah received his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Colorado Teck in North Kansas City and later received a master’s degree in public administration from Walden University with an emphasis in law and public policy.
“Before I could finish I was trying to work in the field of criminal justice that is how I came to the Jackson County jail,” he said. “I went there for experience so that I could have it and then reapplied with my former job, but I feel comfortable at the jail. It is very nice to be around the people here.”
“In the Jackson County jail you think that you are in United Nations where you see all kinds of languages and stuff. You feel that you are home basically. We have people from countries like Liberia and during break time people from different countries sit down and eat a variety of different food,” he said.
“I think Jackson County actually encourages diversity, not just in the jail, but the entire county. They don’t look at where you’re from; you are not treated differently because you are from somewhere else. As long as I do what I am supposed to do, I am respected because of the work I do here,” he said.
Jaidah often encourages people of different ethnicities to apply for jobs at the jail. “If you want a better job where there is no discrimination, we encourage people to come here, which is the cause of diversity. When I started here we had people from Russia and from all over Africa. I was like, is there a little Africa because they were from all over. In the corridor you hear people speaking all different languages you wouldn’t believe there is a jail because people speak in different languages. When they are in the elevator or in the break room you hear people speaking different languages then you. It is kind nice to see that. It is encouraging.”
Hieu To: Sergeant
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 19, 2018
An opportunity to see and experience a variety of cultures alongside other minorities is what Sergeant Hieu To finds intriguing about his job with the Jackson County Department of Corrections.
“The staff has a wide range of people,” To said. “I live in Lee’s Summit and that’s where I went to school, so usually I am with just the same group of people. Coming to the jail I get to see the different cultures and other minorities which pretty much make up the jail.”
His first introduction to varied ethnicities was while going to school at UMKC. “That is when I got my eyes opened with different ethnicities and now working at the jail I have gotten a more in-depth look into it.”
To emigrated with his mother from Vietnam in 1999 at the age of eight. They were living in Ho Chi Minh City when relatives sponsored them for a move to the United States. “That way we could live closer to family.” He has two half-brothers who still live in Vietnam.
He said his life growing up at an early age in Vietnam was good. “My mom had a good business, so my perspective was that I had everything taken care of. There were other people that weren’t as fortunate as I was. You were either really poor or you were really well off. There is not a lot of middle ground and we happened to be in the middle ground. So I was very fortunate.”
The job as a corrections officer was initially intended to be a stepping stone for To, who graduated from MCC Blue River’s Public Safety Institute and planned to be a police officer. He wanted to gain some experience by working at the jail, “and I just kind of stayed.” He was recently promoted to Training Sergeant and now plans on staying and learning as much as he can.
Eke Nwakalom: Case Manager
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 28, 2018
A desire to help create change led Eke Nwakalom from his life as a corporate auditor in Nigeria to working as a case manager for the Jackson County Department of Corrections.
“I felt like I needed to do something different from the banking career which I had. I didn’t see how I can help make changes to the society so I decided to pick up a master’s program in the United States and that is how I got here,” he said.
“The way Americans do things is quite different from the way Africans do things so we want to learn and see how it is being done and how we can help make changes back home.”
Nwakalom, who already had a master’s degree in finance, moved to Kansas City to study at Park University and graduated in 2014 with a master’s in public management. He chose Park because his friend had a cousin living in Kansas City and wanted a place to stay and be able to go to school without a lot of pressure.
While in school Nwakalom started working as a corrections officer to pay bills. He has since been promoted to case manager and even helps out in the finance and purchasing unit when needed. “I help them out in procurement and also when the supervisor isn’t around which is what I like to do, anything with calculation I love it.”
Aside from what he does for Corrections, he doesn’t have the desire to return to banking. “A whole lot about me has changed even though that is what I love to do,” he said. “Having to deal with inmates and being around people has affected my life a whole lot. Learning empathy and how to work with them and make things happen around them kept me at the jail.”
“I don’t know what it is but I think this whole thing got me going to a point where I am looking how to help people and how to make more of an impact on the society,” he said. “Do things that will affect lives. Because of my career at the jail I am thinking about opening a food pantry back home, no matter how small it is because this is how you can affect people’s lives. The different types of people I have met at the jail has exposed me to what is going on in society, how people can be down and how they need motivation no matter how small it is so I think this is what I want to do right now is help people to keep going because life is too short.”
For the past five years Nwakalom has been sending money back home to family members. “I was raised in a family where people depend on you and so I started this thing years ago where I reach out to people and try to help them now. No matter how little I make I give the old folks, like the widows, I give them something from what I make. No matter how small it is.”
Nwakalom is from Lagos State Nigeria an area of more than 25 million people. His parents still live there so he goes home every year for three to five weeks at a time. “That way I can be close to my family again.”
“Most people want to be in Lagos because Lagos is like New York City,” he said. “If you want to survive in Nigeria you have to be in Lagos because that is where everybody is safe.”
Corrections has had a large impact on associates from other countries who are employed there, Nwalkalom said. It has helped teach them what is acceptable in American society. “Without the concept of working at the jail, I think most of us would be in trouble. The jail has brought us together to a point where we can understand the things you can actually do and things you cannot do.”
“We were raised where you have to be the man and whatever the man says is how it goes. But it is not like that in America, and corrections kind of brings you down to where you should be and make you see reasons why you can’t act that way,” he said.
There are people from several different African nations working together at the jail, he said. “Africans all working together. We have been able to come together and say we are going to make this work and the population is growing. The reason behind that is because the jail is getting better. It is getting better every day with the new management putting in so many things trying to make sure that gets better.”