Oakland academy trains ex-convicts for construction jobs

To Tim Bowden, every man who’s gone to jail deserves a second chance.

That is why he and others at Acts Full Gospel Church in Oakland, Calif., work at Men of Valor Academy, a nine- to 18-month, three-phase vocational training program for ex-convicts. Almost 60 people have graduated from the program, which was started in 2002.

This year, 27 men graduated.

“We wanted to make a change and help men reinvent their lives,” said Bowden, MVA director. “These men were homeless, sent on the streets with little or no money. We house them here and have capped them into a field of labor.”

For those who don’t choose construction, the group also offers computer programs.

Bowden said the city’s Park and Recreation Department or Bay Area developers have hired more than half the graduates. Two recent graduates went on to college.

James Bell, who graduated last year, was hired by Eicon in San Francisco and works at landscaping construction sites in that city and in Oakland. He had been in and out of jails since he was 18 for violations ranging from possession of illegal drugs to domestic violence, he said. He joined the academy after his sister, a member of the sponsoring church, invited him there.

“I don’t know what I would be doing,” had it not been for the academy, he said.

In the first phase of the MVA program, students work on their physical, mental and spiritual lives, Bowden said. Then they go through the five-month educational enhancement phase, during which the academy prepares those who haven’t graduated from high school to pass the GED and provides classes in computer literacy. The five-month vocational training phase includes classroom study and practical application of the construction trade, particularly basic carpentry, plumbing and electrical work and sheet rock installation.

MVA is one of two faith-based organizations in Oakland competing to tap into the $19.8 million Prisoner Reentry Initiative federal fund. Dr. J. Alfred Smith Sr. Training Academy, a nonresidential school, also trains future construction workers.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, the initiative gives faith and community-based organizations the means to provide transitional services to recently released nonviolent prisoners so they can become accustomed to society again.

Sponsored by Allen Temple Baptist Church, DJASTA training center serves men and women ex-offenders with two- to four-week employment training. The staff maintains a 90-day follow-up system to check how their clients are doing on the job.

Through President Bush’s faith-based and community initiative, the U.S. Department of Labor will award $660,000 to organizations that meet the need and service criteria of Employment and Training Administration grants.

You can reach Ebony Horton at ehorton@randallpub.com