Building hope Career opportunity: A program for young people seeking to improve their lives offers training in construction skills, employment and a future.

March 10, 1996|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

In a former garage with concrete floors and cinder block walls, a couple of dozen teen-agers and twentysomethings armed with hammers and hacksaws are thinking big.

Eugene Warren wants to start his own business. Devron Dennis wants to build his own house -- preferably in a field near a stream. Wendell Fowlkes, Tayon Dixon and Carlisa Mitchell envision lucrative trades: as plumber, carpenter, electrician.

No matter that many who've come to this construction training program are high school dropouts with 9th- or 10th-grade educations and few prospects for decent-paying jobs.

Every morning at 7: 30, they arrive at a three-story, brick building on South Poppleton Street in Southwest Baltimore in hopes of building futures as solid as the storage sheds they're fashioning from wood.

Thanks to an $800,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, they have a shot -- at high school diplomas, lifelong skills, permanent jobs. The grant went to Community Building Group Ltd., a Pigtown-based, non-profit developer of affordable housing, and to Capital Service Management Inc., which trains and helps place teen-agers in construction trades. Together, the two businesses run CBG Youthbuild, a two-year training program for 27 18- to 24-year-olds.

Kathleen McDonald, president of CBG, and Phinis Jones, president of CSMI, scoured the city to find trainees, going door-to-door, working with counselors at vocational schools, leaving information packets with churches and community associations.

"We were looking for young people who had been through difficult times and were ready to do something to get on with their lives," Ms. McDonald said. "We were determined to find young people who had made the decision they were ready to do something better."

Some had never before picked up a hammer and nails. But those skills can be taught. To remain in a program with more applicants than permanent slots, the students have had to show more than an aptitude for working with power tools. They've had to display a positive attitude and a commitment to stick with the program, come in on time and help others.

When orientation started at the beginning of February, 47 applicants showed up, those who had made the first cut of 100 interviewed. Some found the requirements too stringent. Thirty-two remain, among them seven women.

Under the watchful eyes of three instructors, the students will get a year of both classroom and hands-on training. From there, they will move onto construction sites, such as the Eubie Blake Place houses Ms. McDonald is building and rehabbing on West Lexington Street, and from there, into full-time jobs. Along the way, they can go to classes to get high school equivalency diplomas.

Subcontractors who hire trainees get a subsidy to help pay salaries, paid for through the HUD grant. Subcontractors sign agreements to hire students for appropriate openings once they successfully complete the training.

"The intent from day one is that they will remain with the contractor" -- who benefits despite hiring someone young and inexperienced, Mr. Jones said. "They've been trained and have good work habits. For employers, if they can find a good employee, the subsidy becomes secondary."

But first, the basics. Learning how to hold a hammer. Getting to work on time. Understanding the importance of a quarter-inch.

On a Monday morning, students dressed in jeans and sweat suits split into groups. Those in the first-floor workshop built PTC frames for storage sheds, learning to use a square and measure lengths of wood. Sawdust flew as the sounds of power saws and drills filled the building.

Before entering the program, Damion Love, 19, had no high school diploma and just hung around the house in East Baltimore.

"I had nothing going for me," he said. "Without a GED, I couldn't get a job anywhere."

Now, set on becoming a plumber, he forces himself awake at 6 a.m. each day and rides two buses across town. "At the end, I will have a job. I want to have stability for me and my family. I'm looking toward the future."

Another student, Carlisa Mitchell, 18, hopes to gain experience as an electrician, a trade she found she liked while attending Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, where she graduated last year.

"After I complete a job, I can look back and say, 'I did that,' " she said.

Richard Sterrett, 18, of East Baltimore, said the program has helped him strengthen his math skills, which he will rely on to become a carpenter.

"You get to be creative," said Mr. Sterrett, a 1995 graduate of Carver Vocational-Technical High School. "It's a real challenge. You get to know you're putting something together."

Instructor Edward Barnes said some struggled with the new skills in the beginning.

"But we will not go ahead until everyone understands," said Mr. Barnes, bearded and dressed in flannel. "Those who get it early help the others."

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