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Baltimore educator will use Lowe’s grant to help train students for construction jobs at a new center

When Van Brooks was in high school, he suffered a football injury that left him temporarily paralyzed. He was determined to finish high school and graduate from college.

Brooks, who has partial use of all his limbs and relies on a wheelchair, says he realized there were two things that could not be taken away from him — his education and his ability to dream. One dream was to help youth in the Franklin Square community of West Baltimore where he grew up. He also eventually wants to open a school.

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Brooks, now 32, graduated from Towson University and in 2015 launched Safe Alternative Foundation for Education (SAFE), which helps students achieve academic success. Now, six years later, he has received $50,000 to expand his program. The money, donated by Lowe’s, the home improvement company, will help train young adults for jobs in construction.

The grant is part of more than $2 million donated by Lowe’s to improve economic stability in Southwest Baltimore communities. In Baltimore, the unemployment rate is 13% but in Southwest Baltimore alone, the rate is 20% according to the Baltimore City Health Department.

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“Since opening in 2015, we have a wood shop program and we work with teaching students on how to apply classroom lessons like fractions and decimals and use it for real world skills that could be used in carpentry and construction work,” Brooks said.

SAFE will build a new workforce development community center on Payson Street using the Lowe’s grant. There an older group of participants, aged 18 to 24, will have access to job training services.

Other programs in Baltimore also will receive money from Lowe’s, including Rebuilding Together Baltimore, a nonprofit that provides free home repairs for low-income seniors and disabled residents. The group plans to repair 45 homes.

“Nationwide, more than 2.6 million homeowners live in deteriorating, physically inadequate homes that threaten their health and safety,” Caroline Blakely, president and CEO of Rebuilding Together, said in news release.

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Quonta Vance, Lowe’s division president, north division, said in a news release that the company is uniquely suited to working with local groups to create safe, affordable housing and to support skilled trades.

“This collaboration is a model of how we can help make meaningful, lasting change through the development of a targeted workforce development grant program that aims to improve employment retention and career growth, create safer homes and restore community parks and green areas,” Vance said.

The SAFE center currently works with 12 students from Franklin Elementary Middle School to ignite passion in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics or STEAM careers. Students go to the center on Lexington Street for homework help and tutoring services after school, on weekends and during summers.

Southwest Partnership Inc., a coalition of neighborhood associations and other groups working to improve Southwest communities, will manage the new grants. Elizabeth Weber, director of human development at Southwest Partnership, says her group was confident that SAFE could help connect residents to professional training skills and job opportunities.

“They are an established community program with deep ties to the area,” Weber said. “We liked how SAFE focuses on construction skills and supporting young men, with a focus on middle schoolers in achieving their goals.”

Brooks says he initially decided to focus on middle school because this is a pivotal time for students.

“In eighth grade they are big man on campus, and the following year they are back on the bottom again in high school,” Brooks said. “There are more freedoms, more pressures and more expectations, but it can feel like there is less support.”

Corey Bowden, 18, a former SAFE student, plans to attend a yet to be determined historically Black college in the fall. He says that Brooks expanded his horizons beyond Franklin Square, and he hopes to have that same impact one day.

“I believe that one day Coach Van will open up a school and when he does, I would love to teach there,” Bowden said.

Brooks hopes his program can continue being a safety net for students to help them prepare for the transitions and unpredictable turns in life.

“I want my students to know that they have a network of support every step of the way,” Brooks said. " We are an extended family that will help them along their journeys.

He called the jobs program grant a blessing.

“We will be able to have a larger capacity and accommodate students for longer times,” Brooks said. " Right now we work with just middle school students at Franklin Elementary Middle School to build a direct pipeline between [the school] and the construction industry and now we can expand to another group of 18- to 24-year-olds and provide technical training in the construction industry.”

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