Lend a hand or an ear to start year on right foot

Dan Rodricks

Here's a suggestion for 2006: Be a mentor, be a mensch. Make a difference in the life of one man or one woman trying to stay off the drug corners and out of prison -- just by showing some interest. You could sign up for this service at an event Jan. 16 (see below), or you could phone in your support. Milton Bates did, and things have worked out pretty well so far.

"You give, you get," he says.

Milton is one of the wise old owls of this town, a retired contractor, a well-read and engaged senior citizen who keeps politicians, business colleagues and newspaper columnists on their toes.

Several months ago, I decided to try to hook Milton up with Kenneth Johnson, one of the hundreds of former drug addicts and ex-offenders who, starting June 9, called here looking for help in finding a job. Not only did Milton have connections that could help Kenneth find work, he had great potential as a mentor, someone who could encourage the guy, if only over the phone.

At first, Milton hesitated. The problems of men and women trying to beat their drug addictions and find a job after years of incarceration are huge. And even to idealists, the efforts to break the cycle that fuels the crime and the violence here seem futile.

"How can I help?" Milton wondered. "It seems beyond the doing of one man."

But I told Milton he need only help one man -- one man at a time, one day at a time.

It wouldn't take much -- a phone call, a good word here and there, a suggestion, a job lead.

If everyone did that, we might get out of this mess.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked Milton to report on what has happened since then.

"Kenneth was totally welcoming in our very first phone call, and we connected at once," Milton reports. "I have served as a link to Bill Struever, head of the Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse development company. They were open to hiring my phone pal-become-friend, but only after five interviews and a meticulous series of background checks. Kenneth Johnson is now on this good company's payroll. We have spoken every single week. My daughter and I met him at a delightful lunch. This is a thoughtful, intelligent man, yet one who had served time in six Maryland prisons.

"His main motivation for wanting to change his life? At age 43, he's regaining ties with his children, grandchildren and his mother, who I have come to know in phone conversations.

"I just spoke to Kenneth, a long, touching conversation -- he's given me his cell phone number so that we can talk anytime -- and all remains beautiful. He met Bill Struever at their company Christmas party and, in the photo traditionally sent to the SBER list, his name appears.

"Nothing can be taken for granted; the battle to fully end addiction is fierce. But, I am convinced, the odds favor my friend. Kenneth Johnson's huge gratitude to me, perhaps overstated, is returned by me in fully equal measure. This unlikely friendship is not a one-way street. I feel validated by his sincere words, and so I am rewarded. May such rich rewards come to others. ...

"You give, you get."

Baltimore will never shake its dreary heroin-and-homicide problem without a generational break in the cycle of addictions-incarceration-unemployment. So, here's a way to get involved and help make that happen. If you're interested in being a mentor to men and women trying to enter the working mainstream, give me a call at 410-332-6166, or ...

Event to connect
... attend the St. Frances Academy Community Center's fourth annual Day of Self-Help and Service on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 16.

It's a job fair to connect those seeking help to those who can give it -- either with employment or support and advice. You don't have to have a job to offer. You simply could mentor a man or woman trying to get on track.

"Some volunteers are going to be asked to be neighbors, or mentors, to the job-seekers, to be a friend for the three months between the anniversaries of Dr. King's birth, Jan. 15, and his death, April 4," says Ralph Moore, organizer of the event. "We want them to be encouraging, give concrete help where appropriate, even pray with the job-seeker, if they're comfortable with that.

"Admittedly, one day of interaction has limited potential, but I firmly believe a day of quality interaction can reap a lifetime of change. We gotta do something."

Registration is at 8:30 a.m. Classes in resume writing, interviewing skills and the attitudes and behaviors needed to be successful in the workplace run from 9 a.m. until noon, followed by a brief prayer service and a lunch that brings together job-seekers with volunteers willing to help them.

"We call them all neighbors," says Moore. "We'll all sit down at a table of brotherhood and sisterhood for a nice hot meal."

After lunch, job-seekers will be able to meet with employers, program representatives or a lawyer to discuss the long-term effects of criminal records on employment. The law firm of Whiteford, Taylor and Preston is working with Maryland Volunteer Legal Services to train attorneys in advance of MLK Day. (That training takes place at 2 p.m. Jan. 11, if any attorneys are interested in helping.)

If your company would like to have a presence at the job fair, or if you'd like to volunteer in some way, call 410-539-5794, ext. 30 or ext. 28.

If you're looking for work, be there.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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