Workforce

Rooftop Revelations: CE Profiles Project H.O.O.D.

A workforce development partnership between Project H.O.O.D. and ABC Illinois is transforming lives.
By Maggie Murphy
November 29, 2022
Topics
Workforce

On a frigid November night, Pastor Corey Brooks sticks close to the fire he’s made on the rooftop of an abandoned hotel in South Side Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. Gunshots ring out and sirens wail below him, a typical soundscape in a place where so many people feel forced to resort to violence and crime just to get by.

Founder and senior pastor of New Beginnings Church of Chicago, situated across the street from the old hotel, Brooks had looked out at the dilapidated property day after day and knew it needed to go. Not just that, it needed to make room for something that would serve the community, rather than function as a hot spot for drugs, prostitution and violence. So, he got creative. For 100 days beginning in November 2011, Brooks camped out on the hotel rooftop to call attention to neighborhood violence and solicit donations toward a solution—and within three months, he’d raised enough money to buy the building and tear it down.

In his time up on the roof, Brooks had what he calls a “revelation from God,” telling him exactly what would go in its place: a state-of-the-art community center, designed to serve as a resource to offset violence, provide the support necessary to make the neighborhood a safer place and give children the tools to reach for a brighter future. Thus was born Brooks’ community development nonprofit, Project H.O.O.D. (Helping Others Obtain Destiny). To date, Brooks’ efforts have raised a staggering $19 million—and now, more than 10 years after his first stay on the roof, he’s back on top until he reaches the $35 million needed to build the center.

PUTTING IN THE WORK

At the core of many of Woodlawn residents’ struggles is a need for gainful employment, which is often exacerbated by a lack of resources to provide people with the skills training necessary to successfully hold down a job. Brooks knew that incorporating some sort of vocational training would be critical to the center’s ability to make impactful change. As it turned out, he didn’t have to wait for the center to be built to get the ball rolling.

That momentum came in the form of Mike Uremovich, president of Manhattan, Illinois–based Manhattan Mechanical Services, who joined Project H.O.O.D.’s board in 2017. Uremovich, a past national chair of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), became heavily invested in Brooks’ work and saw an opportunity to introduce construction training to Project H.O.O.D. He called Alicia Martin, chapter president of ABC Illinois, and said simply, “You’ve got to meet this guy.”

The trio met for lunch in Chicago, and the stars aligned. Project H.O.O.D. was a perfect partner for ABC Illinois’ Community Builders program, which brings free training to people who face barriers to employment. Community Builders leaders collaborate with local workforce offices and community partners to assist with recruiting students, most of whom have no construction experience.

“We created a pathway in partnership with [Pastor Brooks] and created this bootcamp-style training program where individuals come in with no construction experience,” Martin says, “and in 12 to 14 weeks of the construction cohort they earn three industry-recognized credentials through NCCER.” While plans are in motion for the center, cohorts receive their training wherever Project H.O.O.D. can find space—in makeshift classrooms in Brooks’ church, in a local charter school cafeteria and even, at one time, in an abandoned Walgreens that H.O.O.D. now owns.

“It doesn’t cost a lot to train in core and Level 1 carpentry, or Level 1 laborer or Level 1 electrician,” Martin says. “You don’t have to have a lot of tools. We don’t have all the bells and whistles, but we have great instructors, and these students are getting really good training and they’re definitely ready to go on a jobsite as an entry-level worker.”

BARRIERS TO ENTRY

Taking the first step onto that jobsite can require a lot more than simple credentials, so another pillar of Project H.O.O.D.’s mission is to provide holistic services for residents. “Most people, when they think of a community center, they think of a YMCA, but ours is more than that,” Brooks says. “We have a trade-school component, we have an entrepreneurial-school component, a restaurant and culinary-arts component, counseling, health facilities—everything that we think that will help transform this community,” Brooks says. “We don’t want anybody to fall through the cracks, so when they get a job and then they quit a job and they don’t want to do it, we keep following up with them to make sure that this is their decision and it’s not just a barrier.”

Most of the time when someone decides to quit the training program, according to Brooks, it’s because of an obstacle that they don’t know how to deal with rather than a lack of interest. “A lot of them come with a lot of trauma,” Martin says. “They haven’t seen success in their families. Many of them have never seen what successful employment looks like, so we know these individuals come with barriers to employment.”

“We try to mitigate all those barriers, whether it’s a court fine they need to pay to get their driver’s license back, whether it’s a substance-abuse treatment program that they need, whether it’s maybe they never did get their driver’s license or because they didn’t finish high school,” Martin says. “We help with that, and at the same time provide four to five hours a day of construction training, five days a week. On top of that, we’re doing financial literacy, interview skills, resume writing, all of that stuff—so when they come out, they really are ready to be successful.”

Word of mouth and social media have played a big role in spreading the news about the program. Eighteen-year-old Dionte Crowley was scrolling online one night, “looking for something to do after high school,” he says, and came across an advertisement for the ABC Illinois–Project H.O.O.D. initiative. “I knew college wasn’t for me, because I had 12-plus years of school already. I needed a break, but I still love learning, so this sounded good to me.” After completing the program, Crowley was hired by Chicago-based Hamstra Roofing this past spring.

Brooks sees Project H.O.O.D. as a natural outgrowth of his work at New Beginnings Church. “Being a pastor in this neighborhood that has so much need, we believe in giving people Jesus for salvation, but we also know that in Jesus’ ministry, he provided for people’s felt needs,” he says. “He saw that people were hungry and he fed them, and so we recognize that it’s hard for people to listen and make a change until their needs are met. We do everything we can do meet those needs, so that we can help them get ahead in their lives.”

All of these efforts require financial backing, and Brooks has been fortunate to have Project H.O.O.D.’s needs met, in large part, through private funding from various donors. The construction cohorts also received grant funding from the state of Illinois as part of its pledge to help fill the shortage of skilled craft workers by offering apprenticeship training to underserved communities and those with barriers to employment.

MAKE ME A MATCH

At the end of each cohort, ABC Illinois puts on a career fair designed to match graduates to contractors looking to hire these highly sought-after trade professionals. To date, the ABC Illinois–Project H.O.O.D. partnership has graduated 200 students in 10 construction cohorts, placing more than 70% of them in jobs immediately, with an average starting wage of $16.50 per hour. “We never run a cohort unless we know we have enough employer partners to source these individuals upon completion,” Martin says, “so at the end, we always know we’ve got more jobs to fill than we have people participating.”

Graduates are just as excited about the opportunities as the contractors who hire them. “What I love about construction is being able to go outside and work—doing physical work,” Crowley says. The youngest member of his class, Crowley has big plans for his future. “I want to get a lot more experience, a lot more credentials, things of that nature. Basically, I want to learn as much as I can.

“The best part about Project H.O.O.D. is that it’s like a family,” Crowley says. “They’re definitely gonna help you, whatever that means.”

by Maggie Murphy
Maggie Murphy is managing editor of Construction Executive.

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