We are a passionate team of formerly incarcerated individuals, those in recovery for substance abuse, and others who have gotten a second opportunity in life and want to pay it forward.
Our individual journeys have been different, but we have one thing in common: We got knocked down, but we got up again. We chose to not let our past define us, but to make us stronger, more empathetic, and more driven to use our experience for good. Get to know us below.
Augie Ghilarducci knows what it’s like to need a second opportunity; after owning and operating a successful financial planning firm for a number of years, he made a series of bad decisions that were contrary to his values, leading to him being convicted of white-collar crimes. He served 12 years in Minnesota’s federal prison system before returning to Chicago in July 2017.
To make sense of his experience, Augie used his time in prison to help others. Having been selected by the warden to participate in a community outreach program, he spoke about his ethical failures at high schools, colleges, universities, and businesses for almost a decade. He also developed various life-skills and employment-readiness programs that he taught to fellow inmates. When he was released, he turned his passion into a second career empowering those dealing with incarceration, addiction, trauma, loss, and other life-changing events to break the chains of the past and create a positive future. As part of 2nd Opportunity, Augie now shares his proprietary programs five days a week in jails and prisons, substance abuse recovery centers, halfway houses, probation departments, workforce development organizations, and with at-risk youth groups. He has also been instrumental in making them available online, on tablets, and soon as part of a reentry app.
Augie’s other current projects include:
Augie also has a hidden talent. Having entered prison not being able to draw a stick figure, he taught himself oil painting and created a total of 400 paintings while incarcerated – a testament to what one can do when one has a lot of time on his hands. The paintings are now available for viewing sale at 2ndoppart.com.
A graduate of St. Joseph’s College in Indiana, Augie completed a master’s degree in business ethics at Loyola University Chicago’s Quinlan School of Business in 2018. He is currently an MBA candidate at Adams State University with a concentration in leadership, completing a program that he started via mail correspondence while incarcerated thanks to the encouragement and generosity of family and friends.
Dan Effrein is dedicated to 2nd Opportunity’s mission of bringing meaningful content and programs to those dealing with incarceration, addiction, trauma, loss, and more. He leads the company’s effort to facilitate the delivery of programs on different platforms to reach larger segments of the populations in need.
A recovering alcoholic himself, Dan has a unique understanding of the layers of support necessary to move forward from a life-changing event and lead a meaningful life. He has tapped into that personal experience to teach life skills classes at Above & Beyond Family Recovery Center and The Women’s Treatment Center. He also leads a weekly aftercare group at the Hinsdale New Day Center and meets with detox patients at AMITA Health Adventist Medical Center Hinsdale.
Prior to joining 2nd Opportunity, Dan spent more than 30 years in the Property & Casualty insurance industry earning CPCU, RPLU, and ARM-E designations.
Dan graduated from Indiana University Bloomington with a bachelor’s degree in economics and has attended executive training classes at the Wharton School of Business and Northwestern University. An avid indoorsman, Dan gets his exercise by staying out of the way of his wife and daughter in their home in Chicago’s western suburbs.
Despite working in several different fields throughout her career – even owning her own interior design and exterior landscape design company – Donna Sarovich didn’t feel like it was enough. Then one day at a lunch at her parents’ house, her cousin Augie started telling his story about the 12 years he spent in prison for white-collar crimes and the obstacles he was facing now that he was out. While incarcerated, Augie had seen how woefully unprepared people were to re-enter society when they left the system and had developed a series of programs to teach fellow inmates employment readiness and other crucial life skills. He was now starting a company to bring that programming to underserved populations. His sacrifice and determination spoke to Donna, and she realized that helping Augie pursue his vision could bring purpose and meaning to her own life that she felt was missing.
Donna joined 2nd Opportunity as the first official staff member, throwing herself into the work of developing the business. In her role as Outreach Coordinator, she leverages her experience in sales management and customer service to network, build strategic partnerships, connect with other outreach programs, and expand the audience for 2nd Opportunity’s programming. She takes pride in empowering people to aspire, transform, and sustain their lives by earning a living wage, and is continuously inspired by their pride, self-esteem, and happiness as they achieve their goals. Like Augie, Donna is also an artist, and she works to strengthen 2nd Opportunity’s commitment to art and activism through 2ndoppart.com.
Donna has an associate’s degree from the College of DuPage and is the mother of five grown children, whom she considers her greatest achievement in life. She lives with her partner in the western suburbs of Chicago and continues to own and operate her design firm, Santosha Environmental Design, which specializes in healing gardens and spaces using the ancient art of feng shui.
Erin Walsh is an experienced editor, writer, and communications professional who is passionate about bringing 2nd Opportunity’s content, programs, and success stories to individuals in need of a fresh start – and the people and organizations that can help them – in a compelling, accessible way. As someone in recovery, she knows what it’s like to lose your way and have to reach out for help as you find your footing and start to build a new life.
Erin has a track record of developing engaging content for a variety of audiences. From Chicago to New York City and back, she has worked in communications for a Fortune 100 company and a small nonprofit; had her writings published in RedEye newspaper, Chicago Magazine, Restaurant Business Magazine, Business Law Today, and more; edited knitting and crafts books; served as head copy editor and web producer for the women’s website iVillage.com; interned for Esquire magazine; and much more.
Erin has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master’s degree in publishing from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She lives in the western suburbs of Chicago with her 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter.
Marlon Chamberlain is an advocate for people directly impacted by the justice system, bringing more than 20 years of lived and professional experience to his work as a thought leader and program presenter for 2nd Opportunity. Formerly project manager for the Safer Foundation’s Alliance for Reentry, Marlon now serves as campaign manager for Heartland Alliance’s “Fully Free” initiative.
Marlon believes that those who have been inside the criminal justice system and carved out a solution to re-entry can turn their unique insights into an asset to help others navigate the rehabilitation process. During his 10 years in federal prison he turned his life around, dedicating himself to learning and bettering himself. After initially setting a goal to read 12 books a year (one a month), he discovered that he enjoyed learning and quickly beat that target, ultimately reading more than 100 books each year of his sentence. He also took college courses and developed relationships with people he could learn from in some way.
Marlon’s interest in advocacy began when his 20-year sentence was reduced due to the passing of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. He’s been involved in some sort of advocacy or re-entry work ever since his release. Before joining Safer Foundation in March 2020, he served as the Englewood project manager with the READI Chicago Program at Heartland Alliance. Prior to that, he was a community organizer with the Fighting to Overcome Records and Create Equality Initiative. Marlon developed FORCE to become one of the strongest organizations led by people with records to advance issues, policies, and legislation at the state level – including passing the largest sealing expansion law in the United States and leading a voter registration campaign that registered more than 1,000 people with records to vote.
Marlon is also very active in the community. He is a founding member of the Restoring Rights & Opportunities Coalition of Illinois (RROCI); chairs the Live Free Decarceration advisory committee; and is an alumnus of JustLeadershipUSA, a national organization dedicated to reducing the U.S. prison population in half by 2030. In 2013, he received the Purdy Award from the Community Renewal Society in recognition of his outstanding leadership in organizing and policy work. In 2017, he received the CARRE Visionary Award from Safer Foundation.
After enrolling in classes at Harold Washington College following his release from prison, Marlon is now pursuing a degree in social work from Northeastern Illinois University. He lives in the southern suburbs of Chicago with his wife and five children.
Yaacov Delaney joins 2nd Opportunity as a social justice advocate and restorative justice practitioner with lived experience inside the criminal justice system. He also continues to serve as policy coordinator for Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton’s Justice, Equity and Opportunity Initiative.
While he was incarcerated, Yaacov observed countless men being released back into their communities only to return to prison, some in disturbingly short periods of time. He vowed not to fall victim to that cycle, using his 22 years in the Illinois prison system to obtain a GED, paralegal certificate, associate’s degree, and various vocational certificates. He also began advocating for prisoner rights and strategically researched solutions to remove systemic collateral consequences that were hindering formerly incarcerated people from becoming productive citizens.
Following his release in February 2014, Yaacov spent nearly four years as a paralegal advocate for the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, assisting people with criminal records to remove legal barriers that restricted employment and state-issued licensing. After relocating back to the Chicagoland area in late 2017, he worked as the Restoring Rights and Justice Reform organizer at Community Renewal Society, lobbying Illinois legislatures to pass criminal justice reform policies. In March 2019, he spearheaded CRS’s first youth delegation to the organization’s biggest annual lobby day (Day of Faith at the Capitol). In May 2019, he provided compelling testimony to the House and Senate Judiciary-Civil Committees that helped pass an amendment to the Illinois Human Rights statute to protect people with records from discrimination when seeking housing in the state of Illinois.
Yaacov is also the founder of Breaking Cycles, a holistic and trauma-informed support group model for justice system-impacted people, as well as a founding member of People’s Liberty Project, a group of justice system-impacted people who use restorative justice mechanisms to build collective power.
Yaacov is married, resides in the southern suburbs of Chicago, and enjoys cooking flavorful vegan dishes for his family. He is passionate about the healing processes needed to address the debilitating effects of systemic/generational trauma and is excited to work with 2nd Opportunity to assist men and women who have been impacted by the criminal justice system in building a successful life following their experience.
Chico Tillmon brings to 2nd Opportunity more than a decade of experience working in violence prevention, mental health, and re-entry. Formerly the executive director of the YMCA of Metro Chicago’s Youth Safety and Violence Prevention programs, Chico is presently senior advisor for the Community Justice Action Fund and a national consultant and trainer for nonprofit organizations. He believes professional development can lead to economic growth and improve the quality of life for men and women in our most vulnerable communities who have been heavily impacted by systemic oppression and disinvestment, and he feels a responsibility to reach back and help those who are in a position he was once in to see what’s possible.
Chico embodies possibility. While serving 16 years in prison under draconian mandatory minimums, he had an epiphany and realized that he didn’t want to continue the cycle of harm he was caught up in. He completed the Residential Drug Abuse Program, the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ most intensive treatment program, and took other measures to change his psyche and behavior patterns. He came home with a purpose: to change his community in a positive way. Since then, Chico has worked with hundreds of young adults on the West and South Sides of Chicago and throughout the U.S., many of whom were formerly incarcerated, to help them hone their professional skills and improve their work performance.
Chico is the recipient of the 2017 Ford Men of Courage Award and the 2018 Congressional Veterans Braintrust Award for his work in Chicago’s most vulnerable communities. He was also named The Practitioner of the Year in 2016 by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Criminology, Law, and Justice department.
Chico graduated summa cum laude from Northeastern Illinois University and received his Ph.D. in criminology from the University of Illinois at Chicago in December 2020. Chico is also a veteran who served in the Illinois Air National Guard. He is the father of two adult children and a 6-year-old and lives in the southern suburbs of Chicago, where he spends his free time helping people in the community.
As a first-generation Mexican-American raised by a single mother in Texas and then Minnesota, Ulises Valdez struggled from a young age to balance the two cultures and find a clear direction in life. He became easily influenced by the criminal lifestyle in his community and, after a series of bad decisions, ended up in a federal courtroom being sentenced to 144 months on drug conspiracy charges. Unable to see any other life for himself, Ulises initially planned to spend his time in prison finessing his drug-dealing game. That changed, however, when he started hanging around some guys who were a positive influence – including his cellmate, Augie – and realized he could take a different path.
Over the course of the next 9 years, Ulises took steps to better himself mentally, physically, spiritually, and academically. He started reading more books and enrolled in any course the correctional institution offered – from fitness classes to college courses to Augie’s Values-Aligned Goal Setting class – all the while challenging his core beliefs, changing his way of thinking, and setting tangible goals for himself.
Upon his release in April 2015, Ulises resided in a halfway house in Roseville, Minnesota, while working as a manager of a fitness club. The following year, he enrolled in Century College, where he maintained a 4.0 GPA and received an associate’s degree with high honors. He is currently working on his bachelor’s degree in biology and communications at Minnesota State University and plans to pursue a master’s degree and, ultimately, a doctorate.
Working with 2nd Opportunity has given Ulises the chance to pursue his passion for assisting formerly incarcerated individuals in their own journey toward self-betterment. He also finds fulfillment in helping and mentoring a variety of people, from at-risk youth to incarcerated individuals. Ulises currently lives in Mankato, Minnesota, where he balances going to school, working as a lab technician, and spending time with his 3-year-old daughter, who has softened his tough-guy persona so much that he now cries during Disney movies.
Willette Benford is a mother, leader, social justice advocate, sought-after speaker, minister, and system survivor. She spent over two decades in prison for a survival crime and is the first woman in the State of Illinois to benefit from a Section 2-1401 petition, which she drafted and submitted when the Illinois Criminal Code was amended to include domestic violence as a mitigating factor. This resulted in her being granted an immediate release from the Illinois Department of Corrections in 2019.
Upon her release, Willette worked closely with Alderman Walter Burnett as a legislative aide for the City of Chicago. She is now the decarceration organizer for Live Free Illinois, as well as the board chairwoman for Heartland Alliance’s Fully Free Campaign, which works to change the narrative about people with records and end permanent punishments. An organizer at heart, Willette was part of a team of justice-impacted system survivors that built a campaign from the ground up and organized first-time voters and formerly incarcerated individuals to get out and vote in the Georgia Senate runoff election—all while training and hiring 85 formerly incarcerated individuals to canvass in five cities.
Willette believes that formerly incarcerated individuals should have the opportunity to re-enter society with dignity and equity and is passionate about eradicating unjust laws and systems that make re-entry difficult. She recently helped launch Illinois’ multiyear Fully Free Campaign by organizing multiple launch events across the state. She also worked on a state- and nationwide campaign urging elected officials to allocate American Rescue Plan funding toward gun violence prevention. This resulted in the Governor of Illinois allocating more than $200 million and the Biden administration allocating more than $5 billion toward gun violence prevention.
Willette currently facilitates a women’s support group that focuses on developing formerly incarcerated Black women who are in leadership positions to head up decarceration, advocacy, and activism work. She is a member of Illinois Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton’s task force on Children of Incarcerated Parents, the Shriver Center on Poverty Law’s Community Advisory Board, the Illinois Alliance for Reentry and Justice, the Illinois Breathe Act Coalition, and Community Partners in Dialogue; and is a leader within the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless’s Reentry Project, Cabrini Green Legal Aid’s Visible Voices group and Leadership Council, the Women’s Justice Institute, and Mothers United Against Violence and Incarceration. Willette also helped create a voter’s guide to distribute inside Cook County Jail to encourage those awaiting outcomes to use their rights while incarcerated. She testified before the Cook County Board of Commissioners and was instrumental in the passing of the Just Housing Initiative.
Willette is a 2020-2021 Community Change Women’s Fellowship fellow and was recently accepted into Northeastern Illinois University as a senior to acquire her bachelor’s degree. She continues to champion fair treatment for currently incarcerated individuals and serves as a voice on the outside advocating for their ultimate release.
Trenesha S. Boyd is a community advocate, mentor and coach who was born and raised on the West Side of Chicago. She is the founder and CEO of I Care Too, a nonprofit that focuses on supporting others in their time of need. In addition to having a master’s degree in community counseling and gerontology, Trenesha is a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor who has worked in social service for 20 years. She also serves on the governing board of the Heartland Alliance’s Fully Free campaign and is a member of Peoples Liberty Project and the Restoring Rights & Opportunities Coalition of Illinois.
As a formerly incarcerated person who has been out of prison for over 20 years, Trenesha knows well the challenges of re-entry and the permanent punishments that burden people with a background long after they’ve served their time. She believes that people deserve to be given a second chance and not judged for their past mistakes, and she’s passionate about sharing her lived experience as part of 2nd Opportunity to help others walking the same path.
Orlando Mayorga is a justice-impacted individual whose 20 years of incarceration in the Illinois Department of Corrections informs his passion to stop mass incarceration. He is a restorative justice practitioner who values the humanity in all people and works to support healing for people who carry the trauma of incarceration. His mission in life is to end mass incarceration and to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.
Orlando currently serves the Office of the Lieutenant Governor of Illinois Juliana Stratton’s Justice, Equity, and Opportunity Initiative as re-entry policy coordinator. In his previous role as program manager and director of re-entry for Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, he worked to build a framework for holistic re-entry services that are trauma-informed and restorative. Orlando is a co-founder of the People’s Liberty Project, led by a group of directly justice-impacted women and men that focuses on creating spaces of healing and restorative/transformative alternative policy frameworks for currently and formerly incarcerated people. He will start graduate school at the University of Chicago’s Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice in the fall.
Gary Stern was a tax attorney and estate planning attorney in the Chicago area for over 30 years. After he committed a white-collar crime, however, Gary lost his law license and served 14 months in federal prison.
While in prison, Gary’s eyes were opened to the many deficiencies in the prison system. Most notably, he found that the prison system does little to rehabilitate its inmates. Why do so many inmates return to prison again and again after being released from their first sentence? Why is recidivism such a problem? He decided that when his prison sentence was over, he would help released inmates better adjust to life after prison and lead more productive lives.
In joining 2nd Opportunity, Gary is excited to be working for an organization whose mission is also to reduce recidivism. Gary presents life-skills and employment-readiness classes to prison inmates to help them be better prepared for the future.
Originally from New York, Gary is a graduate of Cornell University and University of Chicago Law School. He lives with his wife and their four children in Chicago’s northern suburbs.