New program helps at-risk teens, young adults gain skills, jobs

Students focus on learning trade, getting job

Erica George had a choice: either continue working long hours — sometimes out of state — as a truck driver or try to find a job close to home so she could be with her two young children.

“It wasn’t for me,” she said of truck driving.

A chance conversation with a librarian in Baker who told her about a new Work Force Training program in construction skills at the East Baton Rouge Family and Youth Service Center made the decision an easy one.

“They teach you everything you need to know, hands on,” George, 22, said.

George and about two dozen others in their late teens and early 20s are taking part in an inaugural training program that teaches them the skills they will need to work in facilities maintenance, including plumbing, carpentry, painting, electrical work and landscaping.

“They’re going to know enough carpentry to build a house,” said David Blair, 61, an affable east Texan who teaches the class with his older brother, Don Blair, 64.

The free 12-week program is designed to give marketable skills to at-risk youth who either dropped out of school or finished high school, but lack a skill to fall back on for steady work, said Roxson Welch, executive director of the East Baton Rouge Family and Youth Service Center.

“It is good, solid job training and there is a huge need for those skills in East Baton Rouge Parish,” Welch said of the new program.

The center opened several years ago as the home of the parish’s truancy center with a goal of helping to boost public school attendance and reduce juvenile crime. It is on the former 9-acre site of the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired.

The class is taught out of a renovated maintenance shed near the back entrance of the property, adjacent to Interstate 110.

The program is funded through a $350,000 grant awarded to the Capital Region Builders Foundation, a nonprofit, by the city-parish’s Office of Community Development.

The grant covers the cost of providing each student with tools and a tool belt they will keep after completing the class.

The Capital Region Builders Association subcontracted with the Home Builders Institute, which employs the Blair brothers, to teach the class.

From what they have seen so far, David Blair said they are pleased with the work ethic and attentiveness of the group.

“I haven’t seen a lazy one in the bunch,” he said.

He said he is “enjoying” teaching the program more than he thought he would.

“My wife gave me two weeks. She didn’t think I’d be able to handle the at-risk youth,” the younger Blair said of teaching.

Once students complete the class, the Capital Region Builders Association, a member of the Louisiana Home Builders Association and the National Homebuilders Association, will rely on its members and contacts to help the students land a job in the field, whether it be as a home remodeler, roofer or any of the nearly 150 fields in which they now have skills to work.

Student Reginald Eugene, 19, is a skater and wants to one day build his own skate park. He already builds ramps and rails for himself and friends.

“This would actually help me a whole lot with what I want to do,” Eugene said.

Ken Jones, a general contractor and architect from St. Francisville who applied for the grant on behalf of the Capital Region Builders Association, said he knew about the success of the program — it boasts an 80 percent employment rate nationally for the people who complete it — and looks forward to seeing the results here in Baton Rouge.

He likened the class to the old proverb that says “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

“I can’t think of anything more fulfilling than in few months from now, handing out certificates to these graduates and wishing them good luck on their new jobs and new careers,” Jones said.

He said he recently applied for a large grant from the Office of Community Development to cover 12 months of classes as well as bring in a career services coordinator to help students land a job and keep tabs on them once they get a job. He hopes to find out whether he got the grant by November.

The students will also participate in community service projects to apply the skills they learn in the real world, Matthew Alsina, program director said.

The students also will help Welch maintain the center’s 12-building facility, where a building that once housed the visually impaired is more than 100 years old and others were built in the ’60s and ’70s.

“They get an opportunity to see and touch and work on anything that they will ever have an opportunity to work on in any other area,” said Welch, who handles most of the upkeep. “It’s a perfect training ground for them. It works for me, too, because it saves us money.”

Welch said she hopes to begin a similar program, a restaurant management class based out of the old cafeteria building at the center, in October or November.

The concept for the restaurant class is similar to the builders institute in that students get hands-on training from professionals and learn the discipline they will need to get and keep a job once they complete the program.

The students will also perform some catering for businesses downtown to get experience serving large groups as well as work in the cafeteria to feed the more than 150 people who work at the center and children who attend the residential charter school, Thrive.

Welch said the classes, while they may seem out of place, fit in with the mission of the center — many of the children there have parents who have been unemployed and need training to get a better job.

“In all ways, we want to be as proactive as possible so we get the young people here and give them the training so that their children won’t go through this,” Welch said.