Topics: Alumni, College of Sciences and Humanities
February 24, 2015
Alumna Kimberly Howe-Ferguson, ’07, saw young people leaving the ‘system’ with few job or life skills. So she decided to change that.
In a worn, but not worn out building sandwiched between two sets of still-active train tracks, discarded lead windows, tired screen doors, and chipped wooden gables lay stacked along a brick wall, waiting for a homeowner in need.
The nearly 100-year-old warehouse once owned by Central Pacific, better know as Big Four Railroad, shakes when trains pass. The building and its contents—salvaged from hundreds of forgotten homes and offices—are a fittingly poetic backdrop for the work being done inside by Kimberly Howe-Ferguson, ’07.
“Go slow. Just take your time,” Howe-Ferguson says to a young man with a hand-scrawled nametag, as he works to straighten a crosscut saw that’s bowing against a piece of unforgiving wood. He doesn’t look up, but instead gives a nod while keeping his eyes on his task.
That afternoon’s challenge to the 11 or so students is to build four dog houses that will be donated to the Muncie Animal Shelter. But the houses have to be built first.
Far easier said than done.
Enter Howe-Ferguson’s organization that provides job training in building trades and culinary arts for young people ages 16–25 who are often as forgotten as the warehouse in which they work. All have a history with law enforcement or state child services and are too old for foster or group care but lack the skills to be on their own—lost in plain sight.
“These youths are at risk for homelessness, at risk for long-term incarceration with the Department of Correction, or worse,” Howe-Ferguson says. “We’re trying to help.”
So after starting her career in social services with state and private agencies, Howe-Ferguson created her company to teach not only job skills but life skills such as money management and conflict resolution. She partners with private and public groups to increase the likelihood that her students can successfully take care of themselves, and build viable, strong futures. And she brings a servant’s heart to her work, born not only from her years working with the Indiana Department of Child Services, but a personal perspective of seeing loved ones struggle after bad choices.
“My background is similar to these youth,” she says. “That allows me to see these youth in a different light.”
And that perspective only underscores the students’ need for opportunity, she said. “They are learning skills that are transferrable, regardless of what they do.”
Howe-Ferguson said she counts on the community to help her achieve those goals. “If it wasn’t for our business partners, I’d just be a person with an idea.”
One of those partners is Steve Selvey, ’88 MS ’90, with Rebuilding Our Community, or ROC, a Muncie-based architectural salvage company that employs rehabilitating nonviolent felony offenders. Selvey said ROC’s partnership with Howe-Ferguson teaching the building trades skills is mutually beneficial.
“I had a wonderful career in construction,” Selvey says, but he sometimes struggled to find competent, qualified workers. And Selvey doesn’t limit “qualified” to job training. It’s the soft skills that matter, too, he said, and that’s what he hopes will stick with the young people he works with through Howe-Ferguson’s group.
“I feel that part of it is simply teaching them to put on appropriate work pants or to show up on time when they’re supposed to be somewhere,” Selvey says.
In addition to in-kind help from business partners, Howe-Ferguson says, she gets support from some state contracts, grants, and private fundraising. And more than once, she’s cleaned out her own savings. To date, she’s had an estimated 60 young people move through her program.
“Either they step up into an education program ... or they step into gainful employment. Those are the only two outcomes we find successful,” Howe-Ferguson says. “This career isn’t for the faint of heart. If my phone rings at 2 a.m., I pick it up. There’s no sacred time. But we’re working to give the youth hope, to give them a chance to be successful in their adult lives.
“It’s not a handout. It’s a leg up. When the youths walk away from the program and you see they are getting a leg up to be successful...” She smiles. “Well, it’s the little steps.”
Look for more stories about alumni entrepreneurs in the next issue of Alumnus Magazine, due out in March.