Cedar Rapids organization rebuilds houses and lives

Hope Community Development Association provides job training for those facing employment barriers

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CEDAR RAPIDS — By any measure, the vacant house at 1631 B Ave. NE had seen better days.

The front porch sloped. Windows were broken. The roof leaked. White paint peeled off the siding. The front door couldn’t even close. A work crew had already gutted the inside of the foreclosed duplex and was beginning to reframe it into a single family home, hopefully to infuse more stability to the neighborhood.

“This one was bad,” said Russell Dobbins, the site supervisor. “I asked, ‘Did someone make a mistake?’ ”

Cedar Rapids-based Hope Community Development Association — or Hope CDA — purchased the repossessed home for $10,000 last year with plans to remodel and eventually sell it when the makeover is complete in a few months. The organization has a twofold mission: rehabilitate shabby homes in blighted areas and sell them at affordable prices, and secondly provide job training for men with barriers to employment, often those who’ve been in prison or are in a work release program.

For the jobs component, Dobbins supervises a crew of four to six men as they learn about window molding, siding, roofing, carpentry, framing doors and other construction jobs. He coaches the men to forget what they’ve previously learned, and starts from scratch reteaching. It can be slow going, he said.

“When they make a mistake, I just make them redo it,” he said. “That way they learn the right way.”

The 12-month program includes 30 to 35 hours of work per week starting at $9.15 per hour, and weekly classes for construction skills and life skills, including an individual volunteer coach or mentor. Dobbins, 69, was a perfect fit as the boots-on-the-ground supervisor. He spent 30 years building and remodeling homes. He also did time in prison.

Dobbins brings a calm demeanor, understanding ear, a teacher’s patience with the men, and a model of correcting the course of one’s life.

“This is a ministry,” Dobbins said. “I minster to young men going down the wrong path. I feel that is more important than the construction skills.”

Rashaan Sharkey, 37, who has been in the program for four months, said he moved from Chicago to Cedar Rapids in 2015. He’s learning new construction skills, but said he may benefit most from the budgeting guidance, which he is using to develop a savings plan for his kids.

“This teaches people how to use their hands and learn different techniques,” Sharkey said during a break from building a new door frame earlier this month.

Hope CDA was born out of the 2008 flood. Members of some 60 church groups and nonprofits banded together to help displaced people get back into their homes. Later, the mission expanded to include building six houses through Rebuilding Ownership Opportunities Together or the ROOTS program.

As ROOTS came to an end, Hope CDA shifted again to renovate homes in areas including Wellington Heights, Mound View and Oakhill Jackson, and added the jobs training component by September 2015.

Officials try to have a few homes at different stages. The group sold a renovated home on Sixth Avenue SE late last year for $59,900, there’s the home at 1631 B Ave. NE in the throws of the rebuild, another house on Sixth Avenue SE nearing completion, and another one being eyed for purchase.

The program depends on the generosity of others — donations and volunteers, such as retired electricians — to be successful. The goal is to break even financially, said Ron Ziegler, the executive director.

On the jobs front, it’s a challenge. Participants have fled their work release and wound up back in jail, some have returned to old ways, others have been fired and others have found different jobs, he said. Of 14 participants enrolled, only two have completed the program, he said.

There’s hope, though. One participant is nine months into the program and hasn’t missed a shift, and two others have four months under their belt, he said. When successful, the program cannot only change the participants life, but also break a cycle that can saddle future generations.

“It’s an uphill climb,” Ziegler said. “But, we think it is the right approach because we are really trying to help guys with a life change.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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