By Maria Saporta
As he opened the envelope that told him the name of the company where he would be reporting to work the following Monday, Nicholas Holmes took a deep breath.
“This is a life-changing moment,” Holmes told his fellow 12 Westside Works graduates and the people who had come to cheer them on. “Ten months ago, my family gave up on me. I gave up on myself. I made some bad decisions.”
And then Holmes talked about how 10 months ago he had found the STRIVE Academy, which led him to the unique workforce training program.
Westside Works is a four-week intensive program aimed at teaching construction skills to people living close to the new Atlanta Falcons stadium. Graduates walk out with seven credentials that are directly applicable to the construction industry.
Westside Works is part of a commitment made by Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank to the community – that an attempt would be made to hire people who live in the surrounding impoverished neighborhoods to work in construction, including the stadium. It is a partnership between the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, Integrity Community Development Corp. and CEFGA (Construction Education Foundation of Georgia).
On Friday, Aug. 15, the second Westside Works class graduated – full of tears, hugs and dramatic stories. All 13 graduates (the class started with 15 but some attrition occurs as students realize the Westside Works program is either too rigorous or they fail the random drug tests or they fail to meet the passing requirements.
The first class had 14 out of 15 students graduate.
But for those who do graduate, they are almost guaranteed to get a relatively high-paying job. On the Thursday before graduation, “match day” had 47 job openings for 13 graduates. Graduates wrote down their top choices as did employers. And then on Friday, graduates received a plaque, a graduation certificate and an envelope telling them where they would be working.
“You have got to make good decisions,” continued Holmes, who did not want to stop talking at the podium. “Your decisions impact others. Your children look up to you. I’m not supposed to be standing right here right now. I wish I could split myself up and go work for all of you.”
Next was Kamara Johnson.
“This is an emotional day for me. Like Nicholas, my family gave up on me too. I love coming here. I love coming here just to see you guys. You pushed me,” said Johnson, as her voice began to crack. “I don’t like to cry. I’m a punk.”
After she returned to her seat, she went to whisper something into the ear of the lead instructor, Johnny Hughes.
A few minutes later, Hughes interrupted the ceremony. Then he too got emotional le to talk so he tried to return to his seat. But the class wouldn’t let him.
“Kamara got her parole discharged because of this program,” Hughes said as he wiped tears from his eyes and as the room clapped enthusiastically.
Graduate after graduate told similar stories. Several — including Darius Brown and Sherice Brown — talked about their classmates and instructors had become their new family.
Others talked about how Westside Works had given them another chance.
Upon opening his envelope, Jeffrey Carr pumped his fist into the air.
“I can’t say enough about the experience I had at Westside Works. Now I have seven credentials,” Carr said. “It took me off the sidelines and put me back in the game. And it came with a job! Thank you for being hard on us. I will do my best to represent Westside Works for the next class. It’s not about me. It’s about the next classes to come.”
When he went up to the podium, Gene Gaines forgot to open up his envelope to find out where he would be working until his classmates reminded him.
“I almost forgot why we were here,” laughed Gaines, who got a job at Holder Construction. “For a lot of us, it was the best part of our day. We want to thank Arthur Blank for this. It was a top flight class.”
When he opened his envelope,Christopher Stephens buried his face in his arms before he began to talk, saying the program had surprised him. “I love y’all man,” he said to everyone.
Rev. Howard Beckham, director of intake services for Integrity CDC, said he did not want anyone to downplay the significance of Westside Works.
“When we started our community development corporation, someone needed to focus on human capital. Integrity was founded to make changes in English Avenue and Vine City. A lot of promises have been made to this community. Many plans have been made. We were always left wanting. Always left disappointed,” Beckham said. “Finally a promise has been kept. We are going to put the Westside back to work, but we also want you to know that the Westside works.”
Frank Fernandez, who is heading up the Blank Foundation’s Westside initiative, said he would love to have at least two Westside Works training classes going on simultaneously so they could help meet the growing demand for more entry level construction workers.
In order to expand the program, it likely will require support from other private partners as well as the City of Atlanta. But the city’s workforce training program has been in disarray, and it could take some time before the city works with the federal government to free up dollars for more training.
No matter what, people in the construction industry understand the value of Westside Works, and they have been spending time with the students to encourage them to stick with the program.
Billy Freeman Jr., founder of Technique Concrete Construction, said it is hard to break into the industry. For unemployed or underemployed residents living across the street from the Georgia Dome or the new Falcons stadium, it is particularly painful.
“I’ve seen all the things that don’t work,” said Freeman, addressing the disparity on the two sides of Northside Drive. “It’s such a different world. It’s so hard to get in the construction industry. To see a major project going on and not being able to get in is really hard.”
He spends so much of his time with Westside Works because he believes it is one way to break through that dividing wall.
For Dave Moody, founder of Moody Construction – one of the contractors working on the new stadium project, said that he tells the graduates that great things can happen.
“Don’t let anything from your past hold you back,” Moody has told the students. “We need you in construction.”
Moody has been inspired by the change he has seen among the students in the program.
“They have hope in their eyes,” Moody said. “When you give people hope and then they get a job, they can turn their lives around.”
And that’s Jamel Ward’s story.
“Four weeks ago, I had no opportunity, no plan or knew where I was going to go with my life,” Ward said. “It’s more than the job. I’ve had jobs. It’s about life skills. It’s learning how to interact with people. It just changed me and put me in a whole different light.. It doesn’t even matter where I work.”
Ward got a job with HHRM Concrete. A new life had begun.