By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette —
A group of students sat staring intently, their eyes oscillating between the papers in front of them and their teacher, Dennis Luzak, as he spoke on the finer points of pouring concrete bollards on a cold January morning.
Luzak was not talking to high school students. He was in the basement of a small white chapel on 22nd Street talking to a group of men and women enrolled in an adult learning program that provides job training in the construction trades to unemployed and underemployed city residents.
The 400-hour training course - run by Orleans Niagara BOCES - is part of the mission of the Isaiah 61 Project, a faith-based, not-for-profit organization that is working to take city owned houses and rehabilitate them into homes for low-income residents with help from skilled-laborers-in-training.
Once all the necessary permits are secured, the students will begin working at the organization's first project house on Whitney Avenue - just a few blocks from the church - this week.
For the students - many of whom said that they weren't dong anything constructive before enrolling in the program - the classes represent an opportunity to make a living. But, even more importantly, the classes represent an opportunity to find purpose, they said.
Jason Seaberry, one of the eight students enrolled in the course, said one of the things that he wants to earn through the class is a job title.
Seaberry now feels as though he is working towards a career and that gives him a sense of pride. Before enrolling in the program he was unemployed and wasted a lot of his time, he said.
"I was just sitting around doing nothing," Seaberry said.
Darren Christian said that he had been on unemployment before starting the course. He found it difficult to get jobs with no real experience to list on his resume.
Christian is confident that the course - and the certificate and experience that come with it - will give him what he needs to get his foot in the door with a construction company and start down a career path.
"You have a certificate, a skill, that will take you a lot further than just a resume or filling out an application," Christian said.
"Now I have a chance to fight for that entry level spot somewhere," he added.
Anthony Bradley said that most construction companies won't hire someone with no experience and the certificate that the students are working to earn will give them an entry point.
"You have some basic training on it," Bradley said.
Amanda West said she hopes to begin buying and refurbishing houses to rent and sell after completing the course.
"I want to buy property and I want to fix it up myself," West said. "I don't want to have to invest all types of money into someone doing it for me. That's saving money if I can do it myself."
West said that a career in the building trades will bring pride to the students, not just because it is a job that puts food on the table, but because skilled trades workers improve the communities that they live in as well.
"It adds value to the town," West said.
Luzak said he feels extremely fortunate to work with people who are so eager to learn.
"This is such a great opportunity for me," Luzak said. "I still pinch myself every morning, not believing how lucky I am to be a part of this program."
Luzak, who has worked as a carpenter since 1989, said training in the building trades is particularly valuable in today's economy because, unlike other industries such as manufacturing, the jobs cannot be shipped overseas.
"You can't outsource skilled labor," Luzak said. "There'll always be jobs for skilled labor."
Luzak said he was not a good student in high school and goofed off throughout his 20's before finding real purpose through his work, which allowed him to build a good life.
That experience makes him relatable to his students, he said.
"I have the utmost respect for these students of mine," Luzak said. "Like they said, they don't want to be a liability on the system any longer. They want to learn a trade. They want to learn a skill. They want to get out there and be productive."
Alioune Sow, a student who came to America from Senegal, summed up the value of the program for his classmates and himself.
"A job, you can always lose it," Sow said. "But knowledge you can never lose."