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$3 million job-training center opens in Woodlawn

Dante Braxton, 24, runs a small gift shop at the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Woodlawn. Michael Calhoun, 28, landed a job there as an administrative assistant. Both men learned their job skills through courses the center tailors to meet the needs of developmentally disabled adults.

On Monday, Calhoun doubled as a tour guide, introducing visiting officials, including Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, to the center's programs — and offering enthusiastic assessments of the building's amenities.

"I love my job!" Calhoun said. "I help file paperwork and give people tours of our new center."

Braxton showed off his well-maintained shop and sold a few souvenirs to the visitors. At the center, he has learned to operate a cash register and keep track of the shop's inventory.

"I like working in retail," he said.

The nonprofit center, founded in 1977, works with developmentally disabled young people and adults and those who have had run-ins with the law, operating programs in Baltimore and New York. It recently moved its job center to a new $3 million facility in a business park near Security Boulevard.

"We offer day programs to interest developmentally disabled adults and jobs training to those who are capable of learning those skills," said Herbert J. Hoelter, the nonprofit's founder and CEO. "We train our clients to do contract work in partnership with many area businesses."

The 19,000-square-foot building on Lord Baltimore Drive offers classroom space for 250 trainees, who are encouraged to learn at their own pace. The center's clients can also find online instruction and opportunities that include electronic job searches and resume assistance.

"The instruction is very much one-on-one," said Carole Argo, the center's development director.

The nonprofit's job center saw its local client base increase so much that it outgrew its old home, which was in the same business park.

"There were too many of us and too small a space before," said job coach Deborah House. "Now we have bigger rooms for art, music, even exercise."

The two-story brick building, staffed by 85 employees, serves 196 trainees.

"The need for more and newer space was urgent," said Rodney Norris, the center's executive director.

Baltimore County provided the group with a $2.7 million tax-exempt bond to help cover construction costs.

"We are excited to have NCIA training people for jobs in a very difficult economy," Kamenetz said after touring the building. "This training center has geared up to help those in need of jobs."

The new space, mostly painted soft yellow, is designed to advance learning, Norris said. The rooms all have windows, and many classrooms and hallways open onto a landscaped courtyard. It also has a cafeteria, where some trainees practice food-service skills.

The center was humming Monday. Sounds of impromptu karaoke, drums and tambourines filled the hallway leading to the music room. A yoga class is planned for the exercise room, where a weight machine will also be added. A quiet room — with soft lights, soothing music and beanbag chairs — allows clients to relax if they're overwhelmed by workday pressures.

On Monday morning, only one trainee sought out peace and quiet. Elsewhere, clients waited for transportation to job sites, and in the computer lab all eight stations were occupied by intent users.

"This building has all the traditional career training opportunities, which have been adapted to provide additional support for these workers," said Fronda Cohen, spokeswoman for the county's office of economic development. "In this economy, it is all about jobs."

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