By BOB BAUDER – Monday, April 20, 2015, 10:18 p.m. –
Seven years ago, Stephen Shelton began teaching ex-convicts to be bricklayers in a 20-by-50-foot former boiler room in Wilkinsburg.
Shelton on Monday welcomed visitors to the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh’s new classroom — a space 10 times as large as the boiler room — in a former Westinghouse factory in Homewood.
“We’ve trained almost 200 guys (since 2008). One hundred of them graduated, 76 of them are in full-time employment right now, and there’s been a whole lot of life-changing going on,” said Shelton, who began the program with his own money. “All they need is a hand up, and that’s what the trade institute is all about — giving guys a hand up.”
Shelton, the nonprofit institute’s executive director, twice had to close because of funding shortages. He conducted school business over a cellphone from his pickup in the early days.
The turning point was receiving support from the Heinz, Richard King Mellon and Pittsburgh foundations, said Shelton, who operates with a five-member staff, a board of directors and a $600,000 annual budget provided by foundations and private donations.
“Not all of our graduates will become masons, but they now have skills,” said David Lovejoy, board president. “They can get a job with a landscaper. They can get a job with a painter. They now have knowledge of how these projects are executed.”
The institute leases space in the five-story building owned by Bridgeway Capital, a Downtown-based nonprofit lender, which is rehabbing it for artists and light manufacturing in an attempt to draw investment to economically depressed Homewood.
With the space, Shelton said he can expand 10-week classes from 12 students to 16 and find them construction jobs earning a minimum of $12 per hour.
Shelton said his students have included one-time drug dealers and violent offenders.
At one point, he said, he had four “high-level” drug dealers in school at the same time.
“I had a guy who did 20 years for a trunkload full of drugs,” Shelton said. “He came through the program, 10 weeks, got him a job, and he’s making $13 an hour. He’s taking care of his four kids, and he’s taking care of business. That’s what it’s all about for me.”
Ron Anger, 32, of West Mifflin said he spent 10 years in prison for shooting a man in 2002. He was found guilty in 2003 of aggravated assault, criminal conspiracy and carrying a firearm without a license, all felonies, court records show.
Anger said he’s earning $12.50 per hour rehabbing houses for Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that restores dilapidated housing.
“The road to get here was kind of rough,” Anger said. “I just appreciate everything. This is a great school.”
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said the school is training a workforce for future city development and to preserve the past.
“We don’t have anybody trained to be able to take care of it — the iron, the stonework, the brickwork,” Peduto said. “We can throw it into the trash heap of history … or we can provide opportunities for young people to learn those trades. That’s what’s going to be happening right here.”
Bob Bauder is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.