Months after returning his prison uniform, Manuel Gomez walked into a job interview suited up in slacks, a dress shirt and a tie. He landed the job after just five minutes due to his honesty and vulnerability, said Jeannie Thompson, a former supervisor and now close friend and mentor to Gomez.
Thompson said her first impression of Gomez made a huge impact on her decision to hire him, and she was struck by his transparent personality.
“In fact, when I left the interview, I immediately went over to our CEO and said, ‘I know he’s on parole, but I want to hire him. What can I do to hire him?’” Thompson said.
Gomez spent five years in prison for property crimes related to substance abuse and while incarcerated, he earned three associate’s degrees from Coastline Community College, Gomez said.
“I didn't go to school in prison because I wanted to go to school. I went to school out of a necessity. For every college class that you take, you get three weeks off your sentence,” Gomez said. “And if you get an associate, you get six months off. If you get a bachelor’s, you get another six months off. And if you get a master's, you get another six months off.”
Gomez said he shortened his sentence by 1 ½ years. He described this as his vehicle to pursue education, but also said his wife and three kids were his biggest supporters.
In June, Gomez, a military veteran, is set to graduate with a bachelor’s in psychology from Cal State Fullerton as one of the first ones in his family to pursue higher education.
“He is absolutely committed. Once he puts his mind to something, he doesn’t give up,” said Karisma Moreno, Gomez’s wife who also graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “He likes to excel at everything he does. Good is not good enough. Waking up early is not early enough.”
Moreno said that on top of going to school, Gomez is working two jobs and volunteers, along with being a dad. While Moreno describes him as resilient, smart and incredibly hard-working, Gomez attributes his success to the support he has received from her.
“She’s always been critical to my success. I think she deserves half my degree. That’s how supportive she’s been,” Gomez said.
Although Gomez is very serious about his studies, Moreno said the family has a golfing cage in the backyard, and one day Gomez decided to see how far he could hit the ball — outside the cage. A few days later a neighbor from three doors down the road came up to Gomez’s wife and accused the couple’s son of breaking their window, not knowing it was Gomez himself.
Moreno said that one of the first things Gomez did when he was released from prison was go to the tattoo parlor. She said he got the dates he had been incarcerated tattooed on his wrist, as a reminder of his losses as well as motivation to never go back.
“Within a week, he got all his documents, he started school, and he just didn’t take the second opportunity at life for granted,” said Alanna Moreno-Gomez, his adopted daughter.
Moreno-Gomez said Gomez is selfless, and that he gives without hesitation. Gomez adopted Moreno-Gomez when he was younger in order to get her life-saving treatment for a rare blood disorder.
“He was only 20 years old, I think, and I was 12, but he was looking to save my life,” Moreno-Gomez said.
When Gomez first had a sip of orange juice upon being released from prison, Moreno said he almost cried. She said that having real eggs compared to the ones served in prison was a game changer.
“He started wearing extra small when he got out and now he's extra large,” Moreno said.
Moreno said Gomez also volunteers with organizations to help previously incarcerated people adapt to society after being released. He’s especially tech savvy, Moreno-Gomez said, and helps others learn how to navigate technology for school
Gomez’s close friend, Paul Banchich, is one of the people Gomez has helped reintegrate back into society.
“I wouldn’t have this success that I’ve had thus far without his support, without his encouragement,” Banchich said. “If he’s on your side, you got it, you know, whatever you’re facing, whatever you need to get done. If he’s on your side, you’re going to get it done, you know?”
Banchich said that he sometimes has to pinch himself knowing that Gomez is a friend of his that he can confide in. He said he enjoys the fact that Gomez can lighten any situation with his happy mood and sarcastic humor.
“To be able to have a situation to where I might, you know, put a lot of seriousness into, for him to just, you know, crack some humour and kind of like, mellow the moment and kind of help me understand that it's not all that serious,” Banchich said.
When deciding on which graduate school to commit to, Gomez said he thought of his wife and kids first. He said he originally got accepted by USC, Cal State Long Beach and UCLA
“As much as I want to go to UCLA and really break the mold, formerly incarcerated guy going to the best public school, I took a step back and realized, you know what, my family sacrificed so much for me that, I'm not going to do that to them anymore,” Gomez said.
Gomez said choosing Long Beach for graduate school is the right choice for him.
“I get the best of both worlds, right,” Gomez said. “I still get the MSW (Master of Social Work), and I still get to be the dad that I want to be.”