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Strive participants often have histories of drug abuse, criminal activity, homelessness

Harold Ghee

Harold Ghee knew he had to grow up when his 13- and 8-year-old daughters told him they were tired of only seeing him during brief visits to prison.

“I’ve been there for birthdays and holidays. Every time they come to see me, when it’s time to leave, they [would] break down crying,” said Ghee, 31, who has served 8½ years in prison in three separate stints for drug dealing.

For people like Ghee, who completed his last jail term in January, employment training workshop Strive Baltimore throws out a lifeline, providing those with histories of criminal activity, drug abuse and homelessness with the training needed to find jobs and keep them, even in a struggling economy.

Nearly everyone who enrolls in Strive describes having a tipping point in their lives similar to Ghee’s. Deciding to enroll, said workforce development director Moses Hammett, is a point that many come to only after a serious shock.

“That decision may be preceded by, ‘One of my boys just got killed,’ ‘One of my boys’ houses just got raided,’ or ‘I just had a new baby and I want to be there to be a dad for my child,’” said Hammett. “It could be a number of different things, but something hit them.”

For 43-year-old Phillip Bennett, the end of a 22-year relationship that took his three children out of his life caused a downward spiral that left him unemployed and living out of his van.

“I just kind of got lost out there, and then when I found out that [my ex-girlfriend] didn’t want me to see the kids anymore, I just went into this spiral,” Bennett said. “That’s all I had left was my children. So I just decided I needed to retrain my head and refocus.”

Ivanja Hamilton made the decision after an arrest for drug possession marred an otherwise perfect record.

“I’d never been into that kind of trouble before,” said Hamilton, 20. “In high school, it wasn’t really too hard for me. Things just came easy. I did my work and then I didn’t really have to do too much. So once I got to college I wasn’t used to that workload and all the studying I had to do, so I really didn’t make that transition well.”

Hamilton quickly got mixed up in “the wrong crowd,” neglecting her studies, and left Howard University after one semester of poor grades. Her arrest alarmed her mother, who told her about Strive, Hamilton said.

Perry Farrington realized he had to change when he called his daughter from prison on her fifth birthday and she told him that she hated him.

“I’m 31 years old and I’ve been [dealing drugs] since I was 14,” said Farrington. “I thought I would be a millionaire. I’m not. So I’m here just doing it the right way.”

Although Farrington was suspended from the class for smoking marijuana during his lunch break, he returned the following session and graduated automatically after two days because he found a job on his own.

But getting in the door at Strive is just the first of many obstacles, as participants face unorthodox teaching techniques used to ensure that those who make it through the class also make it in the workforce.

“We deliver a tough message. I make no qualms about it,” said Hammett. “Many of the folks that we work with will probably not have had this type of structure before. But one of the things that we’ve found out is that many of these folks are looking for structure because they want to do something productive with their lives.”

Many don’t make it through. Of the 51 people who showed up for last session’s orientation on June 24, just 35 officially enrolled in the class and only 24 made it to graduation on July 15, a rate typical of Strive classes.

“It’s zero tolerance,” said Derek Torrain, 25, who enrolled in Strive after his time in jail left him unemployed. “You have one shot to prove yourself. If you don’t, there’s the door.”

For those who went on to graduate, the promise of a better opportunity for success helped them persevere through three weeks of constant scrutiny.

“I really didn’t think I was going to make it,” said Marcus Pettiford, 25, after the graduation ceremony. “Humility is the key term that they taught us, especially me, because in the beginning, I stormed out because my temper and my attitude got in the way. But [the trainers] kept me in line. They said, ‘I know you’re not a quitter.’”

Throughout the course of the program, changes in participants’ attitudes were apparent to friends and family.

“He would come home every day sharing and really excited about the opportunities and the experience,” said Tiffany Miller, 31, Bennett’s girlfriend of one year. “Instead of seeing the glass as half empty, he sees it as half full. The positivity and the possibility are driving him more than not being able to find a job.”

Hamilton said graduating with her mother proudly in attendance was a high point in the three weeks.

“I feel like I’m really accomplishing something good,” Hamilton said. “I feel like I have the tools now to go out and do it on my own.”

Many others shared their success with family members on graduation day, including 22-year-old William Rowlette, whose cousin, Casey Pulley, 17, cheered loudly when Rowlette’s name was called and laughed throughout his speech.

Pulley said that though he and Rowlette had always been close, his cousin’s time in jail was hard on their relationship.

“We always talked and stuff, but it wasn’t the same because he wasn’t there,” Pulley said. “Now I really feel like he’s trying to change and better his life. This is the first time I’ve ever seen him do something positive.”

Pulley said his cousin was a role model for him.

“I don’t need to do what he’s done because I’ve seen the outcome of it,” he said.

When the graduates turned the tassels on their royal blue graduation caps, few cheered louder than Pulley.

Before the celebrations were over, graduates were already turning their attention to the next step — returning to Strive the following Monday to meet with a case manager who would help them find an initial job placement.

Darrius Palmer, 25, graduated FROM Strive in his second attempt, after failing to complete the program in 2008. He said having faced the same obstacle twice made it even more gratifying when he finally made it to graduation day.

“I wanted to complete it because I really want a job and I really want to know how to handle myself in the world,” Palmer said with a smile. “I’m going to get up early Monday morning, come here and get ready for work.”