D.C. job-training program aims to open doors -- and minds

By Timothy Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The fliers that Raymond Bell Jr. posted throughout the Barry Farm neighborhood held a few nuggets: free computer training, a career path and a possible starting salary of $30,000.

Might sound like a pittance to some, but Ryan Lemmon was all ears. He had been flipping burgers at a McDonald's for seven years when he met Bell last year. The prospect of getting ahead was tempting, especially since the training was free.

"He had me sold," Lemmon, 23, said of Bell's proposal. "I weighed my options and it would benefit me to spend a couple hours a night in class."

So Lemmon signed up for Bell's personal war to change the minds of skeptical residents and overcome a mountain of statistics telling him that the unemployment levels in neighborhoods such as Anacostia, Congress Heights and Kenilworth were intractable.

Bell's goals were modest. He wanted to reach just a few, providing an opportunity for unskilled young adults to find jobs that don't involve construction, trash removal or retail stores. His program is called the HOPE (Helping Other People Excel) Project, and its success hinges on students' ability to find a job that leads to a career.

"These kids have got to get jobs," he said.

Last week, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray (D), a candidate for mayor, called the District's unemployment rate of nearly 10 percent a "ticking time bomb," that requires immediate intervention. Gray plans to bolster requirements that city contractors hire D.C. residents and invest more in transportation, the arts and small businesses.

President Obama said last week that the national economy is headed in the right direction, even though the national unemployment rate is 9.5 percent.

"Climbing out of any recession, much less a hole as deep as this one, takes some time," Obama said.

In the District, neighborhoods including Anacostia and Congress Heights have long had the city's highest unemployment rates.

Bell, a District native, graduated from Ballou High School in 1985. He's a training manager at public affairs firm DDC Advocacy, a skill he acquired while working at the Department of Agriculture. "I saw the ability to impact people," he said. "I saw the power of transferring learning."

After a consulting stint at Riggs Bank in 2003, Bell opened his own training service a year later in New Carrollton. Occasionally he would invite young people to learn about various computer software programs -- impromptu sessions that led to the idea of the HOPE Project. "I knew that wasn't enough," he said. "I had to give them something tangible."

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