OIC working to help people improve their lives


March 12, 2001|By Douglas Lamborne | Douglas Lamborne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

THE NAME IS august enough to sound like a New Deal program: Opportunities Industrialization Centers.

OIC, however, is modest in almost everything. The sign on the door of its local office is barely visible from Forest Drive in Annapolis. The office suite is unfancy, the folks within chummy, informal.

OIC's origins are modest. It was founded by members of African-American churches and businesses in Philadelphia in 1962 who set up shop in an abandoned jail. OIC came to Annapolis in 1978 in a branch opened by George Phelps.

OIC is not modest in its goal: to help disadvantaged folk improve their lot in the marketplace.

Director James Turner explained. People, usually working poor, sign on. They are tested and personalized programs are laid out for them.

"Ours is a holistic approach," Turner said. That means learning how to interact socially and professionally, "to take responsibility for your life, to organize your life." And there are classes in reading, writing, arithmetic, history, social studies, and work in specific job areas. Most classes are run by instructors from Anne Arundel Community College.

"In a typical three-month stay with us we can increase someone's education by several grade levels," said volunteer Van Nield. "We try to get people out of survival mode and become better citizens not drawing on public welfare."

Participants can be of many ages and races. Folks in one classroom last week came from Korea, Pakistan, El Salvador, Vietnam, Honduras, Colombia and the United States.

Hispanics, Nield said, are the fastest-growing contingent, and constitute almost half of the participants. "Their problems can be acute," he said, "because some of them can be illiterate not only in English, but also in Spanish."

Getting people to sign on isn't easy. "First, they're wary of the system generally," Nield said, "and are reluctant to get burned again. Some are embarrassed to admit they're poor or that they are so far behind academically. Jim is especially good at encouraging these folks."

Turner came from where many of his charges come from. "I'm from the old 4th Ward," he said, "pretty much the most disadvantaged community in the city."

Turner, 63, retired in 1996 as a senior manager for the Department of Defense. His modest beginnings and robust success persuaded him to "give something back." So, he volunteered for projects around town, including OIC. He was asked a year ago to become its executive director.

"I came on reluctantly," he said. "I knew someone had to do the job, and that's about as enthusiastic as I could get.

"Now, I didn't have that help, coming up. But knowing how much it takes motivates me now that I'm in a position to offer some help."

Turner has had an impact. "Enrollment's up maybe 60 to 70 percent since Jim's come on board," said Nield. That jump has encouraged OIC to start up night classes beginning this evening.

An organization like OIC functions on the edge of impoverishment. It gets support from Anne Arundel County, the city and from federal grants.

It can always use volunteers: tutors, office help, computer geeks. Contributions are not discouraged. OIC would welcome business partnerships. International Paper and 7-Eleven are on board as corporate sponsors. Call 410-222-1287.

Visitors will find a busy office. One will be struck by the positive atmospherics in the place, engendered by people such as Jean Pitt, one of the teachers. She makes it clear that with some hard work and a positive attitude, people can help themselves become better.

"That's why we're here," said Turner. "We're like family and we're here to help."

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