Gaining Skills Makes County Program A Rewarding Experience


Doug Nicholson has a smile worthy of jolly old St. Nicholas. Cheeks dimpled. Eyes twinkling. Gold teeth sparkling.

And the 53-year-old Kansas City man can hardly contain his merriment as the day Jackson County will be presenting the keys to its seventh Constructing Futures house nears. Nicholson doesn’t know the family who will be receiving the home—just in time for Christmas—but he understands they will have endured hardships, including struggles with homelessness.

“It makes me feel pretty good to see somebody who’s gone through hard times have a bundle of happiness come into their lives,” says Nicholson. “Then tears start flowing. It gives me goosebumps.”
Constructing_Futures_WorkersDoug Nicholson sands the walls of the refurbished bathroom being installed in the latest Constructing Futures house.
Nicholson is helping deliver that “bundle of happiness.” He and a small crew of construction workers-in-training are remodeling the once vacant house in Marlborough neighborhood of Kansas City. They have all gone through their own hard times.

“Constructing Futures is about more than giving families who’ve struggled with homelessness a place to call home,” states Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders. “It’s about helping whole neighborhoods by rehabbing vacant houses and also helping those who do all the actual remodeling work.”

Real Help

Nicholson and his cohorts are Connections To Success clients.

The non-profit organization has partnered with Jackson County on Constructing Futures from the start, dating back to the first house completed in 2009. Connections To Success provides training and other support services to individuals who are unemployed, underemployed or are seeking to find steady employment after being incarcerated.
“I was struggling a little bit,” Nicholson says. “I had a friend go through Connections To Success. He said, ‘Man, they really will work with you. They don’t have you just come in, stick you somewhere and let you go for what you don’t know. They get involved, sit down with you and really help.”

The Connections To Success program starts with an intensive introductory three-week class before any hands-on job training commences. Clients are also provided a “life transformation coach” and are paired with mentors. The connection between clients and the organization will span years.

“It’s a lifelong engagement,” says Brandi Jahnke, the Connections To Success Regional Director in Kansas City. “Life transitions take time. Our life transformation coaches work with clients to develop a life plan focusing on key areas like housing, education, employment.”

She adds, “We really wrap our arms around our clients. We want the cycle of incarceration, the cycle of poverty to end with them. Constructing Futures was a perfect fit for us. The program helps a family end its cycle of poverty—get a fresh start. It helps our clients get some basic skills rehabbing the houses—skills that can help them get a fresh start.”

‘Extra Skills’

Dereck Johnson needed a fresh start late last year. For nearly two decades, he worked for several prominent Kansas City law firms providing litigation support services—(in his words) “a fancy way of saying copy services.” He was laid off last year, two weeks before Christmas. With his income drying up, he could no longer continue making child support payments.

Then he was given a Connections To Success flyer.

Derek Johnson is busy at work, learning on the job.

Taking a break from installing new fire alarms in the Marlborough neighborhood house, Johnson says, “It’s true. Being here not only helps out the family who’s going to get this house. It helps my family out.

“I’m just blessed right now—to have a job this time of the year. I will be able to get my kids things for Christmas this year. It’s a blessing.”

Under the supervision of a Morgan Jacobs General Contracting foreman, Johnson and Nicholson have received training while transforming this latest Constructing Futures house top to bottom. Neither they nor Jackie Bailey, another Connections To Success client, had previous construction experience.

Bailey, a Kansas City mother of six, has now helped side a house, laid bricks, cut metal, installed an electrical panel and done some plumbing. After snaking some wires for the fire alarms through the attic floor, she says almost lyrically, “This has helped me a lot. I’ve learned some extra skills.”
Hearing about a client succeed in acquiring “extra skills” is music to Jahnke’s ears. She explains, “Because some of them have been incarcerated their No. 1 fear is that question on every job application: Have you ever been arrested or convicted? It’s a stumbling block. We tell them. 'Don’t lie. Take responsibility for what you’ve done. Own it.'

“But we do emphasize skills up front. That’s how we start our resumes, focusing on the skill set. We tell our clients to say in an interview or application, ‘Look at the skills I’ve acquired.’”

Johnson nods his head. “The first time I did any work like this was when I stepped into this house,” he says. “I’ve learned quite a few new things. Not to toot my own horn, but I’ve even gotten good at a couple of things. I’m all right with the plumbing. If I’ve got the equipment and the material, I could side a house. That’s awesome.”

What The Future Holds

While Johnson, Nicholson and Bailey aren’t sure they’ll go on to work in construction, they all understand they’ve now gained valuable skills that could help brighten their own futures.

Nicholson has worked primarily as an auto mechanic—“always tinkering with cars”—but is seeking out opportunities to learn other trades “because if there’s a slow season with your first job, you can go to your second job and keep up the pace.”

Asked what the future holds for her, Bailey says, “More experience. More goals achieved. Right now I’m just exploring and getting all sorts of different skills under my belt, so I can be versatile.” She currently holds two jobs, working on the Construction Futures house and part-time for a caterer. In between shifts, she spends time with her children and volunteers for Operation Breakthrough.

Bailey appreciates that she is now equipped to be her own handywoman. “I could now get my own fixer-upper and do the work myself.”

Johnson and Nicholson each grin. They both will also be reaching for their own tools belts, rather than the phone, when their houses need repairs.

Johnson hopes to eventually find a steady job back in the legal field, but stresses, “Doing this gives me more options.”

As for Nicholson, he’d like to work on more Constructing Futures houses—in the future.

“As long as there’s going to be Christmases and [the county’s] got houses,” he says, “I’m interested in doing more of what I’m doing right now.”

Then he smiles again. “And to whoever gets this house, Merry Christmas.”
Jackie Bailey is delighted working on the Constructing Futures house has allowed her to acquire more skills, like trimming vinyl siding.