Not every life follows a smooth and straight path. Consequently, we as human service professionals often find ourselves diverging from the expected course in order to meet people where they’re at and help them to get where they want to be.
Wayne C., a Tompkins County native, comes from a long line of carpenters and construction workers: his great-grandfather built his own house with hand tools. In the early 2000s—after a slow recovery from a four-story fall that left his spine fractured in four places—Wayne took up the family trade. Over the next few years, he developed a broad range of practical skills—“everything besides sitting behind a desk,” he says—and lent his hand to several major construction projects in the area, including the building of Walmart, Lowe’s, and Home Depot and the resurfacing of the runways at Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport. In 2008, Wayne was learning to operate bulldozers and working towards a heavy equipment license when he was convicted of a nonviolent felony and given a lengthy sentence in state prison.
When Geno Tournour, Challenge’s Director of Social Service Programs, first met Wayne this past June, Wayne was living under a blue tarp in The Jungle, a homeless encampment right behind the big-box stores on Route 13 that he had helped to build. He had no job, no money, and no reliable transportation—and as a result he was again facing legal troubles due to nonpayment of child support.
Typically, participants that are referred to Challenge by Tompkins County’s courts or social service agencies will enroll in Job Club, a six-week program of career exploration, job readiness training, and job search assistance. In Wayne’s case, Geno recognized that a different approach was needed: Wayne’s tenuous living situation, as well as his ongoing struggles with dyslexia, meant that a formal classroom-based program wasn’t going to be a good fit. What’s more, the extreme exigency to get on the right side of the law meant that Wayne had to be fast-tracked to the job search phase of our services.
Geno met Wayne at the courthouse—literally met him where he was at—and they immediately set to preparing a résumé and scouring want ads. Wayne got a slew of negative responses at first, but within a month he was hired by a local contractor specializing in hardwood flooring. Wayne hasn’t missed a child support payment since. He’s also been using his carpentry skills off-hours to improve his own housing situation: using only hand tools—including his great-grandfather’s brace drill—he’s constructed a fourteen-by-fourteen cabin complete with kerosene light and heat, a propane stove, and even some Bluetooth speakers for ambience. His next goal is to get back his driver’s license and buy a serviceable vehicle so he can get to his job sites more easily.
Says Geno, “Wayne is a guy who defied the odds. Our team focuses on one of the hardest-to-serve populations in our community—an invisible population with invisible barriers: previous incarceration, chronic unemployment, homelessness, substance abuse, undocumented learning disabilities, and more. Navigating through this job in the last three or four years, I’ve found that I’m tending more and more towards an individualized approach. In a way, I’m returning to my roots as a special ed teacher in the South Bronx, where I was always going off the textbook to deal with people in a more direct way. You’ve got to establish trust one-on-one—that’s the key—and then they start to believe that they can do more.”