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There is one space given over racks of computer parts destined for computers awaiting new vitals. Kennedy Davis, the Veterans Court Technology Clinic (VCTC) Executive Director, is working on a sick lap-top obtained from any one of several sources. Kennedy is of medium build with a bald, polished mahogany dome and wonderfully expressive features. Always tastefully dressed, he is many things, among which master scrounger is prominent. He is a product of the Veterans Drug Court, where it all began:
Mr. Davis was not doing well in Drug Court. He resisted authority as he always had since before enlisting in the Army in the eighties. (He took an “other than honorable” discharge, essentially for insubordination.) Then Commissioner James E. Sullivan thought he might do better in the newly formed Veterans Drug Court. At the time, we were just putting together a cadre of veteran mentors and beginning to work with these ex-service men and women. Being with people who knew something about where Kennedy had been, who he was, Kennedy began to buckle down. He soon shaped up to the point where he was about to graduate.
At that point, Leroy, another Vet court participant, went before the commissioner with a complaint; he liked to write, but, because of severe arthritis, could not hold a pencil. The Commissioner suggested he check with one of the mentors about obtaining a computer, so he could write on a keyboard. A computer was made available by veteran mentor Woody Powell, who knew of a computer no longer in use at the local Veterans For Peace office. It fit the bill nicely. Leroy was happy. Other vets looked on and wondered how it would be if they, too, could get computers, learn how to use them and extend their range of job skills.
A man of considerable intelligence and ambition, Kennedy was attending Harris Stowe University in St. Louis, going for his Bachelor's in Business Management. He was about to graduate both from college and from the Vet Court. Woody took him aside and asked if he would be interested in putting his education to work helping others. The response was an immediate, “Yes!”
From that auspicious point. With the help of Bob Crecelius, who worked out of the Human Services Depart of the City of St. Louis, Woody and Kennedy were led to Brenda Mahr, Executive Director of the Employment Connection. She determined that what they wanted to do fit precisely with what she was doing to help people get jobs. Brenda made available, at no cost, the entire second floor. Now there is a constant movement of people sent upstairs from the Employment Connection for computer training, and, in turn, downstairs for aditional instruction and counseling.
The next task was to get the space outfitted to receive clients. A friend of Woody's, his son who is a union electrician, wired the facility for computer stations. Another friend, Gary Bohn, IT director at the St. Louis Post Dispatch, provided the first batch of working computers from their store of unused units.
From many quarters came help in setting up curricula, obtaining computers, shaping our mission, putting together a business plan for a non-profit. We printed up flyers, got veterans to distribute them among the homeless population. When we opened our doors, folks began to trudge up that long flight of stairs to see what we could do for them. That was three years ago.
Since that time, we have achieved non-profit (501c3) status with the federal government, thanks to Reserve Major General Cassie Strom and her team of St. Louis University law students. Our clients come from the drug courts, prison re-entry programs, the St. Louis Vet Center, St. Patrick's Center, Salvation Army, Saint Louis Agency on Training. Many more come off the street, referred by shelters. We are a racially mixed population with a high percentage of African American.
To date, we have served over 230 men and women. 67% are veterans, 33% are non-vets.. And, yes, there are dropouts, about 33% for vets and 40% for non-vets. Those that stay either get jobs, go on to higher education or volunteer.
One of the realities Kennedy has had to face is that it is next to impossible to schedule regular classes for his clients. Why? Many are homeless and can't always work to a schedule when their lives are inherently chaotic. Transportation is a perennial problem. Bus passes would be helpful if we could afford them. The work-around is to be as flexible as possible, making sure instruction is available when people are there to take it. Being able to pay trainers to remain there throughout the day, every day, always available, would increase the number of successful outcomes. However, with an annual budget of about $10,000.00 that is still a dream. Efforts are under way to attract grant money, but to-date we have relied upon the generosity of people who have come to appreciate the enterprise.
Meanwhile, we rely first on Mr. Davis, then people advanced in their program to drop back and draw the next person along with them. Occasionally a really talented out-of-work trainer shows up, hangs in a while, then leaves as his or her fortunes improved.
Dora was one such person. Army vet. Slight build with an immense amount of energy. Very qualified from her service training. She hung around for quite a while, then went on the take her Master's in Human Resources from Webster University. Last we heard she's landed a really good job in Las Vegas.
A thin-faced black man sits before a monitor, peering intently at what appears to be a tutorial document. It is. He is learning the ins and outs of Microsoft Word. In talking with James one is impressed with his quiet manner. His lips seem always on the verge of slitting into a grin. He has been coming for the last three weeks, on and off, to, as he says, “learn how to do a resume' and get a job on-line”.
There's more to his story, which is the same for many who make it up here.. When asked what else is he getting for himself, he replies, “my sobriety”.
To our left the room extends over 100 feet, the space broken up by low dividers separating alcoves with more tables and desks and computers. At the far end of the vast room is a round table surrounded by uniformly black chairs. On the wall, in two large panels, are the the Twelve Step and Twelve Traditions of AA in large, black print. Every Wednesday, at noon, there is a twelve step meeting, open to all. James is one of many who have worked to achieve and preserve their sobriety under those durable suggestions.
White, rangy, very fair with freckles and red hair Steve spent thirty years in prison. He was living at the Regional Re-entry facility in St. Louis when he became aware of VCTC. He came in and remained several months while getting up to speed in a world that had left him far behind. Eventually, Steve landed a job, using his new skills, with Proctor & Gamble, where his good work has been recognized by increasing responsibilities over the last year. He comes back to VCTC just to check in and see how everyone is doing.
Kennedy Davis is the first to take note of the changes that have occurred in his own life. He credits God with helping him learn the humility to take direction, whatever form it comes in. He also credits God with giving him the power to carry out His will on behalf of others. At one point he was thinking about how his mind had become far more open to ideas and to people he once dismissed as too different to try to relate to; white guys. He coined a phrase, “Minds open, divisions closed”.
The essence of the program lies in Kennedy's and his ever-shifting staff's ability to be there when people come up that long staircase, and to provide a totally non-judgmental, genuinely helpful environment in which those who wish to can thrive. He calls it a program of attraction.
VCTC serves a population that most have given up on. Their reality, like Kennedy's, will often change from that of society's victims to people capable of improving the texture of their lives.