YONKERS - Growing up in the Schlobohm housing projects, Roberto Rodriguez witnessed a lot of violence and personal misfortune.
His own struggle with reading kept him from finishing high school and led to off-the-books jobs and drug use before he discovered a new initiative by the city's anti-violence coalition.
The Jobs for Life program has taught Rodriguez and about 280 local residents that they can dismantle roadblocks to full-time employment, education and personal success.
"After coming to this program, it made me feel confident in myself," said Rodriguez, 23, who was forced to leave the 10th grade two years ago because he was too old for public school. "I wish it was worldwide because there are a lot of people that need it, not only spiritually, but mentally."
Jobs for Life is an employment-preparation effort launched last month by the City of Yonkers Violence & Gang Prevention Coalition. It grew out of an attempt by the coalition's members to help unemployed and under-employed young men on Yonkers' west side find permanent employment as part of an effort to reduce crime, gang activity, drug use and other social dysfunction in poverty-stricken neighborhoods.
The classes are taught by the coalition's chairman, Jim Bostic, and the coalition's faith-based committee leader, the Rev. James Hassell.
Hassell, 35, the pastor of Kingdom Baptist Church at 68 Palisade Ave., said he and Bostic launched Jobs for Life because they realized that they would not be successful finding jobs for young men with criminal backgrounds or low educational achievement if the men went to work as they were.
"We couldn't in good conscience send them out to the job market without giving them some of the preparation they would need to get a job," said Hassell, noting that many of the 700 people who came to an informational meeting about construction jobs last month had suspended drivers' licenses, drug-abuse issues and lacked high school diplomas.
Hassell held his morning classes in his church, and Bostic, also the executive director of the Nepperhan Community Center, ran his out of Gorton High School. Many participants attended both daily classes; three absences disqualified participants. Two weeks ago, 245 students graduated from the program and this past Friday, another 38 graduated.
The coalition will offer another round of the classes in February.
Rodriguez graduated last week. He attends literacy classes so he can get his General Educational Development degree. He also hopes to get training for security work, in addition to attending a workplace safety certificate program that the coalition will offer in February.
"Next week starts my journey in seeking what I want," said Rodriguez, who recently practiced job interviewing skills with Hassell.
Rodriguez said he also liked the program's spiritual message, which focused on helping him and others instead of demanding donations. Hassell delivered his messages in plain street talk, interweaving scriptural lessons with the realities of inner-city life.
Darnell Brown, 24, also graduated from the program last week.
"I feel I have a better outlook on life," said Brown, who also wants to get his GED degree.
"That's what's keeping me down," Brown said of his lack of a high school diploma. He left school in the ninth grade.
A previous conviction for disorderly conduct prevented Brown from pursuing a security guard job, but after finishing his probation and GED, Brown hopes to enlist in the National Guard to better support his two children.
Hassell and Bostic modeled their classes on a national program called Jobs for Life based in Raleigh, N.C. It's a faith-based initiative designed to provide job training and support to the nation's neediest citizens, with the goal of lifting participants from dependency to self-sufficiency.
Participants get help overcoming low self-esteem, child care, transportation, poor work ethic and a lack of educational and work skills, according to the Web site www.jobsforlife.com.
Spirituality is a prominent component of the Jobs for Life program. Last Thursday, Hassell discussed the biblical Book of Jonah.
Hassell said that the prophet's attempt to escape his destiny is similar to a mentality of underachievement common in urban neighborhoods like the ones that surround Kingdom Baptist Church.
"People are depending on you owning your manhood and your destiny," Hassell said of his students' families.
That day's lesson focused on job interview skills. Hassell offered tips on salary negotiation, researching a company before coming in for the interview and the importance of showing passion for work.
"You have to find that spark. You need to cleanse yourselves so that you can feel it," said Hassell. "A lot of our bad habits numb ourselves."