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Sen. Kaine visits new vocational school for former felons

Jeremy Lazarus | 10/12/2017, 10:17 p.m.
When Kenneth Williams got out of prison, he found work in construction and began rebuilding his life. Thirty years later, ...
Sen. Tim Kaine, right, an advocate of vocational training for former inmates, hears Dr. Owen Cardwell Jr. describe how a new program on Chamberlayne Avenue will provide carpentry and other skills for people who have served time and want to turn their lives around.

By Jeremy M. Lazarus

When Kenneth Williams got out of prison, he found work in construction and began rebuilding his life.

Thirty years later, the veteran 68-year-old contractor strives to help other felons follow in his footsteps by teaching them carpentry, plumbing and other basic skills to help them become employable and perhaps start their own business.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine stopped in to tour the nonprofit Adult Alternative Program that Mr. Williams launched with his wife, Alfreda Williams, two weeks ago in the former REAL School building at 4929 Chamberlayne Ave. that is leased from Richmond Public Schools.

He is operating rent-free for the first year to allow him to fix leaks, broken windows and other problems with the building.

Since April, Mr. Williams has prepared for the opening by making repairs with help from volunteers such as Jesse Montague, who repainted all the rooms and now is a student in the program.

Mr. Montague is one of the first 12 students, nine men and three women, who have enrolled in the training program they hope will change their lives.

Not all are felons, but all have had trouble finding employment and see AAP as a way up.

“This kind of program is definitely needed. An awful lot of people who get out of jail or prison have a really hard time getting work because their criminal record gets in their way,” Sen. Kaine said.

He also supports training that can lead to work in areas that do not require a college degree.

As the son of a welder, he’s been a passionate advocate in Congress for expanding vocational education in public schools as a way to improve the lives of those who have served time.

Sen. Kaine advised the students he met to stick with their goal of learning construction skills, noting that America currently has a shortage of trained people in welding and other fields that provide good paying jobs.

The students in the program range in age from 19 to 61. Some, like Mr. Montague, have experience. Some do not.

“Right now, they are in the first phase, character building,” with classes led by Dr. Owen Cardwell Jr., pastor of New Canaan International Church and creator of a program that seeks to rebuild ties between inmates and their families.

“We want to first work with them on their attitude and their work ethic to make sure they are ready,” said Mr. Williams.

Next month, the students who begin learning how to use tools to measure and make things, such as dog houses and tool sheds. They also will learn how to sell and raise money for the program.

Mr. Williams also is working to get a public entity to allow him to gain a tax-delinquent property so that his students, under the tutelage of volunteer professionals, can repair and prepare for sale to a home buyer.

His plan to make the program self-supporting and provide stipends for students is to renovate, then sell such homes for a higher price. The difference would be invested in the program and the students, said Mr. Williams. “I think it is going to work out.”

He’s now working with the city and the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority to secure the first houses for the program.

The students need his plan to succeed. Those with felony records need the work to pay off debts to the court that block them from getting drivers’ licenses. Some have child support obligations they want to meet, but have no money to pay.

Mr. Williams understands the challenges and the struggles that former prisoners face.

“Been there, done that,” he said.

But he knows that construction is one line of work in which “your ability and skill is more important that your arrest record.”

And the pay can be excellent, he said, and doesn’t carry the risk of prison like drugs.

“So we tell the hustlers, keep your hustle — change your product,” he said.