How Bill Conway’s $1 billion will help the poor

Correction: The column incorrectly said that the Central Union Mission’s shelter is in Northeast Washington. It is in Northwest. This version has been corrected.


Many students at Trinity Washington University students aspire to be nurses including (L to R) junior Isatu Dukuray, sophomore Beronica Cruz, freshman India Williams and freshman Sasha Stubblefield. (Timothy Russell/Courtesy of Trinity Washington University)
Robert McCartney
Columnist October 10, 2012

Local philanthropist Bill Conway has begun giving away $1 billion to programs that help people like Mark Shepard, who is homeless, and India Williams, who’s studying nursing while raising two children.

Conway hasn’t met either of the District residents. But he could hardly do better.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

In numerous cases similar to theirs in our region, Conway’s gifts should provide a lift to unemployed or other low-income people who are already striving to improve their lives.

Conway’s generosity will mean that some people get permanent jobs — with benefits and a future — who otherwise would have remained unemployed or stuck in dead-end positions.

As I’ve been documenting since my first interview with the McLean financier more than a year ago, that’s just what Conway set out to accomplish when he started studying how to use his wealth to provide long-term solutions for the poor.

Shepard, 40, was in what he called “a broken state” when he moved into the Central Union Mission shelter in Northwest in early 2010. He’d had no job in three years and some run-ins with the law.

“I was asking for money, eating out of the trash,” Shepard said. “I was sleeping under bridges, sleeping in the park.”

Today, Shepard is a few weeks away from finishing a six-month, full-time training course in Anacostia that will qualify him to get a permanent job in building maintenance. The Center for Employment Training, which is part of the charity So Others Might Eat, provided the course.

Conway announced two weeks ago that he was donating $5 million to the center so it can expand. It was part of $55 million in a first round of donations that Conway expects ultimately to total $1 billion or more.

Shepard grew animated and smiled broadly Monday as he described how the job-training course transformed his life.

He learned the basics about electricity, plumbing, heating, air conditioning, carpentry and landscaping. With those skills, which are much in demand, he should have no problem finding a position paying more than $11 an hour, with benefits.

In addition, Shepard stressed, the instructors and other staff members gave him personal support and unconditional acceptance that were just as vital to him as a lesson on wiring a three-way switch.

“The hardest part for me in training was accepting all the love. I was used to people hollering and screaming at me and trying to take what I got,” Shepard said. “I didn’t just obtain a skill. I also obtained a family.”

Nursing student Williams, 22, is a freshman at Trinity Washington University in Northeast. She started there because she couldn’t support her family on the $7.25 an hour she earned working in the Macy’s children’s department in Marlow Heights in Prince George’s County.

“The last job, I was earning minimum wage, so that really inspired me to go to college,” Williams said Tuesday. She expects a salary of $55,000 or more as a registered nurse.

Nevertheless, Williams worries about the cost of her education. She had to take out $9,500 in student loans for her first year. Right now, she’d need to borrow several times more to finish the four-year program.

“Once I graduate, instead of focusing on paying my loans back, I’d like to be able to save for my children’s own college tuition,” Williams said.

That’s where Conway comes in. He pledged to donate $30 million for scholarships and other assistance to help nursing students at Trinity and at least five other educational institutions in the Washington region.

He picked nursing partly because growing demand means anybody with a nursing degree can get a decent job. Also, the field attracts many low-income people who wish to rise economically.

Conway’s help for future nurses might go to cover more than just tuition. He’s considering subsidizing other pressing student expenses, such as transportation and child care.

Williams could certainly use some help with the latter. She receives $428 a month in aid under the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — of which more than a quarter goes for child care.

Williams has three years to go at Trinity, so she might personally benefit from Conway’s donation.

By contrast, Shepard will presumably be out in the workforce patching walls and unclogging sinks by the time Conway’s contribution helps the Center for Employment Training. He expressed strong appreciation, anyway, because he knows others will benefit after him.

“Tell Mr. Conway from me I say ‘thank you,’ for real,” Shepard said. “I’d like to give him a hug.”

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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