John Valverde, 50, went from the prison cell to the executive suite, having an occupation listed as “convict,” to an occupation of “CEO.” Now chief executive officer of YouthBuild USA Inc., Val- verde was named winner of the 2018 Brian S. Fischer Achievement Award.

“It was amazing to be in a room with so many people who guided me and mentored me during my incarceration and are now celebrating who I have become,” Valverde told SQN. “And to have my family there with me was extremely special and moving.”The award recognizes a formerly incarcerated leader, one who has made an impact by advocating for positive change in the world, according to a news release from Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison.

Valverde received the award at the Hudson Link 20th anniversary celebration and annual Spring Benefit Dinner in New York City.

“We cannot think of anyone more fitting or more deserving of this honor than John,” said Sean Pica, Hudson Link executive director.

Valverde co-founded Hud- son Link with Pica while they both served time at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York. Valverde spent 16 years in prison for manslaughter. Valverde was 20 years old at the time of the offense.

“I found my meaning and purpose during my incarceration and used my time to develop myself, starting with accepting full responsibility and committing to making amends,” Valverde said. “I focused on doing those things that would make me better.

“That’s how I prepared to make the most of my second chance. Today I’m grateful to be living out my second chance with YouthBuild,” he added.

While in prison, he earned a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science from Mercy College and a master’s degree in Urban Ministry from the New York Theological Semi- nary.

Valverde was released in 2008 and set about running a major organization. Youth-Build USA Inc. oversees a global network of programs that help low-income and troubled youth obtain job skills. The company has more than 250 programs around the U.S. and another 100 pro- grams in 22 other countries.

“I am the first formerly incarcerated CEO of a non- profit with a global mission,” Valverde said. “As humbling as that is, it means little if it doesn’t inspire young people to live into futures they never imagined possible and if it doesn’t stir the public conscience to see our young people as more than the worst thing they have ever done.”

Leading YouthBuild is an accomplishment for Valverde, but his heart is with Hudson Link.

“I love Hudson Link more because it gave me meaning and purpose, not just when I needed it most,” Valverde said. “But in a way that would set a trajectory for a life committed to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.”

The other redeeming factor for Valverde is seeing the hundreds of graduates com- ing out of the prison college program he helped found.

“I believe each time an incarcerated person graduates, the light of the path to justice grows brighter,” Valverde said. “They have shined upon my own path to healing and forgiveness for my crime, and I will work to make amends for the rest of my life, continually inspired by them.”

Valverde is not only celebrating his award, but 10 years of freedom, a seventh wedding anniversary and the love of his mother, age 80.

“My mom visited me every other week, and sometimes every week, for 16 years,” Valverde said. “She even found a way to pay the balance of a semester at Mercy College during my incarceration, when I had exhausted my TAP/Pell grants,” “I would not have graduated without her support and sacrifice,” he added.

He still reflects on the words of wisdom his mom gave to him that propelled him to the top.

“I was sitting in the back seat of the car,” he said. “As we left the parking lot of Green Haven Correctional Facility, my mom said to me, ‘Don’t look back. Only look forward.’ That is what I have tried to do over the last 10 years since my release.

“I will find strength in this award all the days of my life.”