Rebuilding society, one life at a time in Waterbury
BY MIKE PATRICK REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN
WATERBURY, CT-073114JS01-Reginald Beamon, Executive Director of Waterbury Opportunities Industrialization Center on Bishop Street in Waterbury, talks about the centers mission on Thursday. The center provides skills, career training and remedial eduction to the needy. Jim Shannon Republican-American
WATERBURY — Reginald G. Beamon wasn't long out of college back in the 1970s when someone gave him a book to read. It was called, "Build, Brother, Build."And brother, what he's built since then.The book was by the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan, who wrote of his experiences creating the first Opportunities Industrialization Center, a now-national organization of local nonprofit agencies devoted to career training, life skills and other services geared toward enabling the unemployed or underemployed to become self-sufficient, productive workers.Fueled by the charge given him by Sullivan's book — and a longtime association he had with the man prior to Sullivan's death — Beamon has led the Waterbury Opportunities Industrialization Center (WOIC) for 16 years.The Waterbury center will celebrate its 40th anniversary later this month, and the parent organization its 50th.On a recent weekday, sitting below the portrait of Sullivan that hangs in his office, Beamon mused on the book he said changed his outlook and set a course for his life."How do you touch people?" he said. "How do you turn people around?"WOIC turns around the lives of more than a thousand people every year.SHERINA ANDERSON WORKED as a beauty consultant at the Macy's Logistics and Operations Center in Cheshire before she was laid off.She had been a legal assistant once, but it had been a long time since she used software like Microsoft Excel. She had gotten rusty.On a recent weekday, she sat in a computer lab in WOIC's Bishop Street building, and studied the Microsoft Office suite under the tutelage of Eleanor Carr."I wanted to further my training with the computer," she said. "I'm happy to be here. It's helping me quite a bit."Student clients like Anderson, Beamon said, participate on their own schedules, come and go as they please and stay as long as they need.He doesn't consider his responsibility to them finished until each and every one finds a job.The approach, he said, is both a holistic one and highly individualized, since everyone's needs are different. Some, for instance, are laid off from a job they held so long, they hardly know how to do anything else.Others have criminal records, lack of education, or other impediments to being hired. Some, he said, simply don't know how to dress for an interview.WOIC's services address all those needs, and more."We want them to be self-sustaining," Carr said. "We want them to go to work, take care of their families, and not be on welfare."It's often a challenge — Beamon acknowledges he can't help everyone.When the Peter Paul candy factory in Naugatuck closed in 2008, Carr said, the center was flooded with laid-off employees who only knew how to make candy. Retraining them, she said, was a tough task.CARR HAS BEEN WITH WOIC since the beginning, joining the nonprofit after finding success in the corporate world.At that time, the WOIC was run by its founder and first executive director, Joseph L. Jaynes.In those early days, Carr said, a lot could be accomplished with the $150,000 the state granted the agency every year. WOIC had dozens of paid employees and provided many types of job certification training.It even built houses, including two on Bishop Street — not only providing paid construction work and training for the builders, but transforming its drug- and crime-ridden neighborhood.Helping the neighborhood in a big way, Beamon said, is the WOIC building itself. Named after Jaynes, who died in 1997, it sits on the site of the old Crocco Bakery property.Beamon, who was once a Democratic state representative for the 72nd District, oversaw the construction of the $1.3 million project about eight years ago, and still remains excited about the facility, which contains offices and classrooms, and a nearly complete basement level where he plans to create training space for phone-support workers.WOIC's portion of Bishop Street is now well-lit and inviting; the building even inspired some neighboring homeowners to add lights to their properties, Beamon said.Bishop Street, to be sure, is not completely transformed. There are still boarded-up, ramshackle buildings used by addicts, Beamon lamented.He would like the agency to get back into housing development, but times have changed.The state's allocation for WOIC, once having dropped to just $85,000, has been stable for years at $100,000, Beamon said, although it doesn't go nearly as far as it did in the old days.And many of the services WOIC had provided, especially the certification training, has been centralized by the Northwest Regional Workforce Investment Board.The agency now has just a few paid employees, including Beamon and Carr, who sometimes go with no paycheck at all if WOIC can't raise the other $103,000 or so that rounds out its annual budget."We get blood from a stone here," Carr said. "I love my job. I love my students. We don't make a lot of money, but we certainly enjoy what we do in helping people."Some of that budget money comes from renting space to partner agencies that expand the menu of services WOIC offers.For instance, M.E. F.I.R.S.T., which provides subcontracted family visit supervision for the state Department of Children and Families, offers, among other things, chess classes at WOIC."It helps with mathematics, discipline, critical thinking," Terrence Soulds, president of that organization, said. "The game is so in-depth, we have autistic kids who have improved in school since they started chess."The Jaynes building also houses the Waterbury Construction Careers Initiative, the Greater Waterbury Black Business Association and the construction company HP Contractors."It's been a symbiotic relationship," said Elliott Johnson, founder and owner of HP and head of the GWBBA. "When I certify my guys are OSHA trained, the training happens right here at WOIC."WOIC AND ITS PARENT ORGANIZATION grew out of 1960s urban unrest and the role racism played in minority unemployment.Indeed, Sullivan's work began a half-century ago as a protest against Pennsylvania-based factory baker Tastykake, which refused to hire minority workers. When the company relented, the first OIC was formed to ensure minorities were properly trained to work there.So it may come as no surprise that Beamon sees much of WOIC's mission to be one of advocacy.Just last year, an investigation by Beamon uncovered, he said, the city's long-standing lack of compliance with Section 3 of the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968, which ensures a municipality's residents would be given preference for jobs and business opportunities provided by HUD money.Beamon said after he brought this to light, Mayor Neil M. O'Leary issued an executive order making sure the city complies with Section 3 and that should an out-of-town contractor win a HUD-funded city contract, it provides jobs for city residents.
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