Donovan’s cheeks became flush as he tried to mask his failure. He stared at the chalkboard in front of him, watching his teacher draw lines on it, but couldn’t grasp the concept.
Donovan held a measuring tape in one hand and drew out the yellow ruler several inches. He compared the numbers on the tape to the ones on the board.
Pete Baker, his instructor at the Michael Barlow Center, has been a carpenter for nearly 40 years. Baker sensed Donovan’s confusion. Wearing a faded pair of blue jeans, Baker walked over to Donovan and stood beside him.
“But I’m talking about this inch,” Donovan said. He pointed at the increments in the first and second inch on the shiny yellow portion of the measurement tape, which in this class was called the “M.I.T.,” or most important tool.
Baker explained that each inch had the same 16 sections.
There are 23 other students in Baker’s building maintenance class. Like Donovan, they are also ex-offenders learning a new trade in hopes of being employed.
They talked quietly as they waited for Donovan to catch up.
Francisco Saez, a thin 29-year-old with sunken cheeks and a tattoo of a teardrop under his right eye, was seated next to Donovan. He leaned in, trying to help out. So did Calvin Gant, who reached across Saez to grab Donovan’s tape measure. The three men huddled around the object, their faces etched in concentration like football players planning a game-winning touchdown.
Donovan didn’t score that day, but his face lifted knowing his classmates were there to help him out.
The interaction illustrated the promise and challenge for the members of Baker’s class. On one hand, the center and its workers are committed to helping its predominantly black and Latino students successfully chart a new life course. This includes connecting them to entry-level jobs in the newly emerging green economy and other sectors. In many cases the students respond, grasping the opportunities with which they are presented and treating each other in a supportive and collaborative manner.
But success is far from guaranteed. Entering one of the sparsest and intensely competitive jobs landscape in decades, many ex-offenders, like Donovan, must figure out how to overcome low levels of education, spotty work histories and, at times, their own habits.
The center is part of St. Leonard’s Ministries, which opened in the mid- 1950s. St. Leonard’s provides residents with a host of services to help them transition from their incarceration to being a fully participating member of society, said center Director Jim Zangs.
The center, which is named after Barlow, a former St. Leonard’s resident and staff member, opened in March 2005. A picture of a widely smiling Barlow hangs on the wall near the building’s entrance.
Baker, who maintains the campus’ 11 facilities, is often the first instructor from the center whom the ex-offenders meet after arriving. “Sometimes, when they come to me, they have nothing but their clothes,” Baker said. “I try to get them what they need. If they need a lamp, I try to get them a lamp. If they need soap, I try to get them some soap.”
Baker said people at the three-story building have started to embrace the burgeoning green movement. He and others implemented a recycling program during the summer and are preparing to create a green roof.
In addition to providing a home for ex-offenders right after they are released, St. Leonard’s also gives formerly incarcerated men and women education, training and job placement services. The building maintenance class is just one of many that the center offers; others include computer classes in word processing. All are free.
Building maintenance student Thomas Edward Wilkins, an energetic and cheerful 46-year-old with a shiny head, has also taken computer classes. “You have to do it to stay current,” Wilkins said he was confident that the knowledge and skills he acquired in the two classes he has taken in life would help him reach his goal of renovating and selling a building he owns near Cabrini- Green in a way that’s green.
Some of the students have executive ambitions. Devon Dobbs worked for a decade with U.S. Security Associates and wants to own his own business. Often sporting large sunglasses, he asks probing questions of Baker and the other instructors. During a guest lecture about taxes, he asked if he and others could file a class-action lawsuit against the federal government for assigning penalties on late taxes while paying none of their own for late refunds. “Green is the way of the future, so I’m with it,” Dobbs said.
The students have help getting launched on their career paths. The building maintenance class features a weekly jobs lead session with Lisa Cockerham, a jobs developer. Occasionally, she will have center alumni speak to the group.
Early in the 10-week class, Howard Dade spoke bluntly to the students. “I’ve done everything you all have done,” said
Dade, a short, muscular man who spent nearly 20 years going in and out of prison on drug-related charges. His mother died while he was incarcerated. Dade, dressed in a gray suit with his glasses tucked into the front left pocket and a white t-shirt, told students that he works at a nearby hospital cleaning operating rooms. After the surgeries are done, he wipes the blood from the floor for more than 40 hours plus overtime each week.
“If you can make it on the street, you’ve got skills that you can use in the work world,” said Dade, who has benefits and received a promotion within his first six months on the job.
Most of the positions available to the students are entry-level jobs, many of which are in the service industry, according to Cockerham. But Zangs said some of the students go on to do other things, such as higher vocational training and apprenticeships.
Still, the obstacles the students face are real.
The unemployment rate in the city and region is the highest it’s been in decades, and is even higher in many of the city’s black and Latino communities, where many of the students come from.
Many employers are leery of hiring ex-offenders, and the education gaps–” like Donovan’s–”can seem daunting.
In some case, the difficulties are also self-imposed. Francisco violated the code of behavior in the transition home where he was staying and risked expulsion from the class. Calvin was asked to leave the class because he wasn’t taking it seriously. So was Donovan, who for a while was using someone else’s cell phone to call and pretend that he could not come.
In the fifth week, every student got an A on the weekly test Baker administered. It was the first time that had happened in the two-and-a-half years and 10 classes that Baker has taught.
By the sixth week, the students’ ranks had dwindled by a quarter. Those who were left remained resolute. By the end of the week, the students were installing wiring for energy efficient light bulbs they hoped would work when Baker turned the lights on.
Baker walked over and flicked the switch. The light went on for the first time.
The class cheered as one student thrust his fist in the air.
The students stood in the garage of the building that they had made green. Even with their uncertain futures, they hoped that the skills they learned would lead them to work.