When Hope Returns

When you have a will to advance in life, sometimes what you need is opportunity. When your resources and connections are limited, opportunities can be scarce. But you don’t give up. Such was the case for a young man named Jacob.

Jacob found himself relocated from another state to the small town of Independence where he first came to live with his grandmother. It was not the ideal situation, and soon he found himself trying to find other places to “crash”. A few nights here, a few nights there, it is a delicate balance to stay long enough to cover your basic need of shelter but not wear out your welcome. Then there is the challenge of food – mainly, how to keep from going hungry. The typical couch accommodations do not always include meals.

Work is hard to come by when you have minimal skills and paying for higher education isn’t even on the radar when striving to meet your basic needs. The sheer desire to work is not easily articulated onto an application. You must have something to offer an employer, some kind of skill usually learned from training or work experience. Jacob had little of both but knew he would do well if only given a chance. Whether through luck or divine intervention, Jacob found himself connecting with HALO, a Job Growers funded program. They offered construction skills training that only took six months to complete. He immediately applied. It was a competitive process and he had just made the deadline.

The “Mental Toughness Challenge” was a weeklong boot camp scenario where staff and participants determine whether the construction training program is the right path for each youth. Some young people find that they are not ready to make the commitment. Jacob knew he was ready and did everything that was asked of him. He showed up on time, kept a good attitude, participated in the team building activities and showed that he really wanted to be in the program.

When the Challenge ended only twelve people were selected. The announcement was made and Jacob was excited to learn that his name was on the list! From the first day he resolved to learn everything he could as fast as he could. The program became an outlet for Jacob to show the world that he had something to offer. He was now learning valuable skill sets while contributing to his community by helping low income families with home repair projects. He felt good about helping others in need, which unleashed a sense of self-worth unlike anything he had ever experienced.

Shortly after joining the program Jacob decided that he wanted to become a carpenter apprentice with the local union. He enjoyed working with his hands and had heard that you could make good money. During the program, a field trip was arranged to the Laborer’s Training Center in Adair, OR where he learned about the process to get on the union out-of-work list. He applied to be a Carpenter’s Apprentice and, just before graduating the six month program, found out he had made the list. Mayor John McArdle attended graduation and thanked the young people for their contributions to the City of Independence. He handed out the “Certificate of Competency” issued and recognized by the SEDCOR Construction Alliance (SCA) for mastery of ten basic skill sets deemed necessary by the SCA to enter the construction field. It was a proud moment as each graduate had their photo taken with the Mayor. After graduation Jacob waited for his name to move up the union list. It can take weeks, sometimes months to be called as an apprentice. So Jacob stayed busy working for a local farm starting at $9.10 an hour. This was another win! With steady employment he was much better off than he was six months prior.

Then it happened. The phone rang. It was the union calling. His name had moved to the top of the list. He was next up for employment! Imagine his surprise when he learned that he would be starting at nearly $17.00 per hour not including the union fringe package. He couldn’t believe it! Oh the possibilities – fix the car, no more couch surfing, no more food worries. Could it get any better?

Almost a year later the City of Independence became a finalist for the “All American City” award. They were preparing for their final presentation in Denver Colorado. As a key partner in the construction skills training program they wanted to know if Jacob could attend with them to personally tell his story. I contacted Jacob hoping that it could be arranged. He was working with a new company on a project at Oregon State University but this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. His employer agreed!

Jacob was suddenly terrified that he had to present. We met for breakfast on a Sunday morning to go over the trip and discuss what he might share. I was enjoying catching up with all the things he had been learning. Then I asked, “Did you get a bump in pay when you switched employers?” Now please understand that Jacob is a hard working big kid with a quiet, soft spoken demeanor. He looked down at the table, moved some food around on his plate – a sheepish grin crossed his face. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “I make 23.50 an hour now.” I was shocked. Only one year with the union and this kid was making $23.50 an hour! Even I found it hard to believe.

This Construction Skills Training program showcases the power of collective impact through positive community alignment. The partners included; Job Growers Incorporated, Habitat for Humanity, City of Independence, SEDCOR Construction Alliance, Boys and Girls Club T3 and the HALO program. More recently, the United Way has joined with sustainer funding. This is a perfect mix of government, nonprofit, and business organizations coming together to creating a significant opportunity helping disadvantaged young people succeed in the workplace.

The most powerful thing we can do as organizations and individuals is set the stage for the return of hope. When youth have the opportunity to become stable they are freed to dream of possibilities, building greater aspirations for the future.

Back at the breakfast table, after telling me his new wage, Jacob then uttered the most powerful words of our time together. He said, “I’m thinking about going to college.” I was overwhelmed with emotion. His life is changed forever.