I met Thomas last week at So Others Might Eat (SOME), a charity that feeds the hungry, houses the homeless, and soothes the sick and the drug-addicted. It also prepares people for new careers. SOME’s Center for Employment Training, in the Conway Center on Benning Road NE, offers classes in health care and in the building trades.
It was there that Thomas, 45, recently spent nine months learning about plumbing, carpentry, electrical and HVAC — and how to work on all of those things safely.
I asked him what the most challenging part of the course was.
“Electrical,” Thomas said. “If you don’t pay attention with electrical, it can change your life. Or end it.”
Thomas’s life was not going the way he wanted it to go. He had mostly done mailroom work, hardly a career. So he enrolled in SOME’s certified building maintenance service technician program.
In addition to the hands-on technical instruction — in such areas as drywall, painting, pipe-cutting, wiring — teachers cover the soft skills required to land a job. They help with résumés and cover letters. They conduct mock job interviews.
“They’re not just going to throw you out there unprepared,” Thomas said.
Or unequipped. Every student must do an externship, and when they do, SOME provides a full tool bag.
In November, Thomas started with a real estate company that owns dozens of apartment buildings in the area. He’s part of a team that’s responsible for the upkeep of three buildings in Northwest Washington.
There, he was taken under the wing of William Hudson, 54, a veteran maintenance man — and, as it turned out, a former SOME client. In 1999, Hudson completed SOME’s addiction recovery program in West Virginia.
“I just got tired of being in the space I was in,” Hudson explained of his motivation for quitting.
When he returned to Washington, Hudson got more help from SOME. He stayed in transitional housing, where he gained independent living skills. When he was ready, he moved into his own apartment.
“It was the first time I ever had my own place, paying rent,” he said. “It was pretty cool. From there, I haven’t looked back since. It changed my life completely. It saved my life.”
Hudson said he sometimes recognizes people he knew back when he was running the streets.
“There’s people still out there today that are out there when I was out there,” he said. “All I can do is lead by example. People tell me because of me changing my lifestyle, they changed theirs.”
Thomas said he has noticed the same thing. In his blue work shirt, keys jangling, people look at him a different way.
He’s noticed something else, too: Buildings have taken on a whole new meaning. He sees them in an entirely different way, as complex systems that just might need the help of someone like him.
“Every time I walk into one, I’m looking around,” Thomas said. “You want to be aware. I walk down that hallway, I can spot a light that’s out or a doorknob that’s loose.”
There’s a lovely tradition at So Others Might Eat: When graduates of its Center for Employment Training receive a job offer, they’re invited back to the Conway Center to ring a bell that stands outside the classrooms.
“I’d seen people ring it before and I said, ‘I’ve got to do that,’ ” Thomas said.
When he got his job, the classrooms and nearby offices emptied as people filled the lobby to congratulate him.
Said Thomas: “I gave a little speech. ‘Never give up. If you really want to do something, stick with it and work hard.’ ”
And he struck the bell.
The sound of that bell — loud, clear, honest — is echoing still.
You can help
For three years, I’ve been encouraging readers to donate to So Others Might Eat, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. This is my last column about SOME. Soon, it will be the turn of other charities.
Please help us reach our Helping Hand goal of $250,000 by Jan. 3. To make an online contribution, visit posthelpinghand.com and click “Donate.” Or make a check payable to “So Others Might Eat” and send it to SOME, Attn: Helping Hand, 71 O St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.