Niagara Gazette

March 17, 2013

Reconstructing Niagara: The Isaiah 61 Project rebuilds vacant homes, neighborhoods and lives

By Michele DeLuca
Niagara Gazette

NIAGARA FALLS —  They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.

— Isaiah 61

As the story goes, the young carpenter, just beginning his career as a spiritual leader, went into a temple and began reading aloud from the old testament. The verse that Jesus chose was Isaiah 61, from the Old Testament, about how cities will be rebuilt. 

As Jim Haid recounts it, that was the Bible story that inspired him when he was seeking a name for his plan to teach construction skills to the unemployed, rebuild vacant homes and revitalize neighborhoods. It seemed to make perfect sense to name the program the Isaiah 61 Project. 

Some might say the faith-based program is already a miracle of sorts.

Haid marvels over the many hands that have been extended to help the program since it came to life in October. Apparently, many see the potential in providing hands-on training of trade skills to those who wish to make better lives for themselves and their families. In the process, abandoned homes are renovated and sold to families who wish to be homeowners, which fortifies communities. 

From local churches to contractors to politicians, Haid said, everybody is “bending over backwards” to make sure this program succeeds. If there were ever a win-win idea, this one just might be it, not just for Niagara Falls, but as a model which might be followed in struggling cities across the country, according to Haid. 

Just recently, the program was given $200,000 by the Oishei Foundation, a stamp of hard won credibility for its potential.

Haid began the project with not much more than his own extensive experience at faith-based non-profits in Lockport. The money gives him the chance to impact more students and more abandoned property. Another hand comes to the project from the University at Buffalo where law students are assembling a grant to try and win more money for the program, which would further broaden its reach and impact.

The construction students, typically unemployed or underemployed, divide their time between the classroom and a vacant house on Whitney Avenue which they’ve stripped down to its timbers. Rebuilding the house allows them to try their hand at a variety of construction skills, from blue print reading, to electrical, plumbing and drywall installation.

The classmates, six men and one woman, tell an assortment of life stories, but each has faced his or her own challenges before winning a spot in the program.  Some of the students shared their stories during a recent lunch break.

Darren Christian, father of three, is a wrestling and basketball coach for his son’s community teams. He was working at a local steel company until he was laid off a while back. At the unemployment office, he saw  a brochure for the Isaiah 61 Project and was intrigued by the possibility of learning new skills. 

Six months into the program and he’s already looking at his own home in a new way, imagining it stripped down to its skeletal frame, similar to the house on Whitney Avenue where he’s been working every day, and understanding more about what’s behind the walls. With more than 200 hours down and halfway through the program, he’s looking forward to his certificate of completion. “There’s a lot I can do from this point on,” he said.

Jason Seaberry, also a father of three, wasn’t ready for college when he graduated from LaSalle High School in ‘98. Instead, he took a long string of low-paying retail jobs. One day, he accidentally hit the call button on his phone and dialed up an old friend who happened to be in the Isaiah 61 Project. Seaberry joined as soon as he could, because “I wanted something better.”

He still remembers what, his friend, Alionune Sow, told him on the phone that day, “You can always lose a job, but you can’t lose a skill.”

Curtis Cheeley is one of the older participants. At age 50, the father of one, remembers a time when jobs were plentiful in Niagara Falls. He was laid off a couple years ago from his manufacturing job.  He feels grateful for the chance to improve his life.

“It’s more than over the top in being a positive influence in people’s lives,” said Cheeley about the program. “It’s providing the skills to help find and maintain a job for pretty much the rest of your life.”

 — John Rossman, also a father of three, is hoping to become a property owner once he’s completed the program, taking advantage of the program’s connection to a first time homebuyer program at First Niagara Bank.  

The skills he’s learning have fostered greater ambitions than just property ownership. He looked around at his classmates and noted that “with all the things we’re learning, we could start our own construction company. ”

-- Alioune Sow came to the Falls from Senegal, Africa, to work in his younger brother’s now-closed Africa shop. The father of two works as a cook for Delaware North, at a restaurant in the state park, but wants something more. It was his certainty that skills cannot be lost, that inspired his fellow student, Jason. Sow says simply, “I’m looking to get a better paying job.”

Their teacher, Dennis Luzak of Orleans Niagara BOCES, feels a certain camaraderie with his students. “When I got out of high school I had no direction. I wouldn’t have gone to college no matter what people said,” he said. 

Life changed his mind. A carpenter by trade, at age 45 he finally decided to get his teaching certificate to better care for his family, and found himself at Buffalo State, alongside his oldest daughter. 

He delights in being able to teach, which he says is “so much more than I expected.”  The attitudes of his students impress him the most. “Ninety-five percent of them have told me, ‘I’ve got kids. I want to make my life better.’ How can I not respect them for that?”

 Contact Features Editor Michele DeLuca at 282-2311, ext. 2263.