“From dark to light, from hopelessness to hope. That’s my why.”

Everyone knows the character arc of the hero’s journey. From the Marvel Cinematic Universe to romantic comedies, the main characters follow the same trajectory (in Aaron Walling’s words) — “from dark to light, from hopelessness to hope.” 

But for Walling (‘95), his why is not what makes him the hero or the main character in his story. His why is simply a part of the journey where he helps the real heroes find and wear their capes. 

“My story is not the story of someone who has gone through addiction or incarceration, racial oppression or anything like that, and yet a lot of my colleagues, that is part of their story,” Walling said. “I’m drawn to the transformation that they’ve gone through in their own lives. They’re the heroes in their own stories.”

“I’m drawn to the transformation that they’ve gone through in their own lives. They’re the heroes in their own stories.”

These heroes come from a variety of backgrounds, but what they all have in common is overcoming time served in prison. As the regional director for Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), Walling and the CEO team work with people who were formerly incarcerated as they are coming out of prison to help them rebuild their lives. CEO connects participants to employment, first, through in-house transitional work crew. Then, they help prepare them for a longer-term job placement.

Walling started working at CEO in 2019, but this was not his first experience interacting with individuals in the inmate population.

While completing his undergrad at PLNU, Walling became involved in a ministry that took him to a church service held within Donovan state prison in Otay Mesa. There, he got a glimpse of what his why would be.

“I just remember being so deeply impacted by that: breaking down the stigmas you might have,” Walling said. “Obviously, it’s scary going inside a prison. It’s never something I had experienced personally before.” 

“And yet, once we got inside that room and being around with all these men, I was just so impressed with who they were as people, what they shared about themselves, the passion they had in their church service. I just remember thinking as a young person, ‘I just wish these men were on the outside and they could be my mentors or friends.’ I felt like they broke down all the barriers of stigmas I might have had about someone who might be incarcerated or had a felony.”

“I just remember thinking as a young person, ‘I just wish these men were on the outside and they could be my mentors or friends.’”

After that experience, Walling became involved in a church in southeast San Diego. There, he was part of the juvenile hall ministry. 

The more Walling witnessed the experiences and stories of the incarcerated people he met, the more he had to confront the fact that his ignorance of the system of incarceration was not necessarily bliss. 

“I grew up pretty sheltered,” Walling said. “The Point Loma peninsula was my world. When I started to get exposed to those things, that’s when I started to open my eyes.” 

“I think, even as a young adult, [I wasn’t] fully comprehending some of the system of racism and injustice that does lead to those conditions, but I really started to get immersed in it.” 

“When I started to get exposed to those things, that’s when I started to open my eyes.” 

After he graduated from PLNU, his desire to travel took him abroad. This travel bug is something he attributes to his father Dana Walling, who was a professor and Vice President for Spiritual Development at PLNU. Dana helped lead many international ministry trips while he was a professor. But, Aaron’s desire to find his why and invest in the stories of transformation did not leave him, even while abroad. In Uganda, he began to feel that sense of purpose.

“On one of those international trips, my focus really shifted,” Walling said. “I spent three months on this ranch and started understanding the critical need for safe drinking water and some of the simple ways you can help with that.” 

“I took a shift at that point. All the experiences in college were focused on prison and social needs in the United States, especially in disadvantaged communities. I started shifting towards international work in water.”

Walling spent 15 years in international development and helping communities get clean drinking water. However, after moving back to the U.S., an unexpected turn of events led him back to re-entry work with inmates.

“What felt like a full circle, [I went] back into this kind of work I was doing in college,” Walling said.

Again, he confronted what it meant to be involved in work that redefines stigmas and stereotypes, while also recognizing his privilege amid the systemically unjust incarceration system.

“I think growing up and probably when I was at PLNU, I probably had a mentality that was much more about ‘savior mentality’ or the ‘white-savior mentality,’” Walling said. “Those kinds of things probably came into play, to where there was like this sense of the ‘other.’” 

“Obviously, there are, without a doubt, people with less opportunities. I know clearly the privileges I grew up with as a white male in society, in a middle class home, all the education I got to have.”

“At the same time, the deeper I get into the work I do, both internationally and here in the U.S., I hope and I believe that I’m starting to break down some of those barriers… Whether it was what I was doing with water — you’d take water that was unsafe to drink and we could bring about a transformation there — not an outside organization just coming in to save the day, but working with the local school authorities and leadership and even the kids themselves. They’re the heroes in their own stories. I’m drawn to that work that brings about positive change.”

“The deeper I get into the work I do, both internationally and here in the U.S., I hope and I believe that I’m starting to break down some of those barriers.”

Over the years, the pursuit for humility and justice within his job has continued to shape the ways he helps clients at CEO. And, his why has evolved with life circumstances as well. 

“My ‘why’ is also I’ve become a father,” Walling said. “The stories that I’m most drawn to and get me at the deepest level are those parents.”

“There’s a really high percentage of those who are incarcerated, or those we serve at CEO, [who] are parents. That reconnection of a parent and child is also really important to me and it’s something I love being a part of.”

His part in their story is mostly about helping their mentality shift. 

“There is possibility for you here. You can believe in yourself. We believe in you,” Walling said.

And the mentality of the potential employers who would hire participants is equally important. 

“The language used and the way we talk about somebody is really about their skills, what they’re capable of, the training they’ve received, how focused they are, how loyal they’ll be in a job, rather than focusing on anything in their past,” Walling said. 

In addition to redefining the way people view themselves and others, CEO works on making hard skills training more accessible to those re-entering the workforce. One of the ways they do this is through opportunities like digital skills training. And the need for this sort of support is clear.

According to the White House’s 2022 Proclamation on Second Chance Month, “Every year, over 640,000 people are released from State and Federal prisons. More than 70 million Americans have a criminal record that creates significant barriers to employment, economic stability, and successful reentry into society.”

Walling contributed an article to the San Diego Union Tribune sharing the importance of CEO’s programs like the digital skills training. 

As for the future of CEO, Walling said the hope is that he and his coworkers will be out of a job someday — a day when justice triumphs.

“We eventually hope to work ourselves out of a job. We hope that one day there is not such a need for an organization like ours to provide so many services to people.”

“I think a lot of nonprofits say [if] we’re looking really far out into the distance, like MLK says, the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” Walling said. “That is what we’re all fighting for and believing. That more and more every day, every year, every decade, we’re coming to a place where there is more justice in our society.”

“We eventually hope to work ourselves out of a job. We hope that one day there is not such a need for an organization like ours to provide so many services to people.”

Until then, Walling says he will continue to come alongside and advocate for the heroes whom he gets to be part of their stories. 

“The heroes in my life are my co-workers and colleagues, especially the ones who have had to overcome so many more obstacles and barriers than I have,” Walling said.

“To get back to the why, why I show up everyday in my role and keep giving the energy I can to this work is really because of them: my colleagues and co-workers formerly incarcerated who battled with addiction or different other barriers. Learning from them and struggl[ing] alongside them in this work, that’s really so important to me.”

Lainie Alfaro is a student at PLNU studying multimedia journalism. She’s currently the editor in chief at The Point, PLNU’s student-run newspaper.