`Boot camp' provides a boost

Intensive 3-week training session helps workers go from dead-end jobs to careers

September 09, 2006|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun reporter

Darnelle Harris felt as if she'd hit a dead end. At the age of 27, she had a high school diploma and had held several jobs in telemarketing and retail sales, but she was barely making ends meet. Prospects for increasing her earnings were grim, she said.

Harris has a different outlook today. Armed with new job skills and a professional appearance, Harris says she has several job prospects and is about to return to college to finish her bachelor's degree. Her goal is to work in film production or editing.

Harris celebrated her change in attitude yesterday when she and about 20 other city residents graduated from an intensive three-week program called STRIVE, which teaches low-paid workers, including some with criminal records, how to tap into dormant talents, get education and prepare for productive careers.

"The program was very stressful, challenging and demanding," said Harris, referring to the program's boot-camp rigor. "But very positive. I used to feel like I was stuck and kind of hopeless."

STRIVE, which is housed at the Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development, a nonprofit group in Northwest Baltimore, has also reached a milestone.

Harris' class is the 100th to graduate from the program since it came to the city in 1998. The program was started by Robert Carmona, a former convict and drug addict, in the basement of a Harlem apartment building in 1985. Today, STRIVE National has 19 affiliates in cities across the United States and in London.

"We will not truly improve Baltimore until we reach into the most challenged communities," said Joseph T. Jones, president and chief executive of the center for fathers, who went to Harlem to visit the original STRIVE site before bringing it here.

Jones said he is proud of the program's success -- it has about 2,400 graduates -- and excited about its future. He and board Chairman David L. Warnock, co-founder of Camden Partners Holdings LLC, an investment management firm in Baltimore, said they want to expand the program to offer more services to graduates, including monthly seminars on how to buy a house and start a business. Graduates are eligible for help for up to two years after they finish the program.

"We want to empower these graduates to take it to the next level," Warnock said.

STRIVE founder Carmona also attended the graduation ceremony, which was held at New Shiloh Baptist Church at 2100 N. Monroe St. Carmona told graduates to surround themselves with "people who think like you" in order to stay on the path to success.

"You want people who will always encourage you to do a little bit more," said Carmona, who has traveled around the world to talk about STRIVE, or Support and Training Results in Valuable Employees. "If you are a knucklehead in your personal life, you will be a knucklehead as an employee. It's not like you punch in and you're brilliant."

STRIVE participants report to class every morning by 9 a.m. and must dress and speak professionally. They get help with resume writing and learn computer skills. During an emotional "Stand and Deliver" session, participants describe challenges in their lives, such as drug or physical abuse. Participants call program leaders "Tasmanian devils" because of their tough attitude.

Monique Colbert, 19, graduated from the STRIVE program a year ago. She said it changed her outlook and helped her realize that she was hanging around with people who had no direction in life.

"I used to hang with these people who were doing nothing," said Colbert, who was interviewed earlier in the week. "Half of them had dropped out of high school, they were having babies, they were still living at home, they had boyfriends who were drug dealers."

Colbert said that going to STRIVE made her realize she didn't have to settle.

"I can do better," she said.


Sun columnist Jean Marbella contributed to this article.

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