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Derek Liggins can't keep himself from looking at ceilings. When out with his wife, he stares upward, checking out the ductwork - something his bride of two weeks finds bizarre.

This happens, the 42-year-old says, because what he does for a living stays with him all day, an attitude that has been a long time coming. His past is littered with arrests and convictions, the last of which resulted in an eight-year prison sentence for dealing drugs that ended in the summer of 2008.

After his release, he joined STRIVE, a three-week job preparation initiative of the Center for Urban Families that changed his life. He and four other graduates of the program have given back to the 10-year-old center, helping construct a new $5.3 million brick building in West Baltimore for the organization founded by Joseph T. Jones Jr., also the group's president.

"I appreciate what they did for us and then what we were able to do for them," Liggins said.

Jones had invited Rich Beattie, the owner of Mechanical Engineering and Construction Corp. of Woodlawn, to help STRIVE participants practice their job interview skills. Beattie was so impressed with Liggins, Dennis Barnes, George Webb, Antonio Jordan and John Jones that he hired them, despite the fact that most of them lacked significant construction experience.

"I read their resumes, and if they'd come out and filled out an application, they would have gotten thrown in the garbage. They just didn't have the skill set," Beattie said. "These guys wanted a chance. And you can see it in their eyes."

One of their first jobs was the Center for Urban Families building, where a new STRIVE class has already started on the grounds of the old Coliseum, a city landmark that was once the home of the Baltimore Bullets basketball team. Liggins said it was STRIVE's regimented curriculum, which makes applicants wear button-down shirts and ties, allows no cursing or tardiness, and calls for boot-camp-style address to superiors, that prepared them to win over an employer.

"That was the toughest three weeks I've ever been through. And I was in prison for eight years," Liggins said. "And it's all mental."

Many of the 14,000 people who have participated in the center's programs have similar backgrounds to Liggins' and some of his co-workers at Mechanical Engineering and Construction, a reality not lost on the crew as they walked through the finished two-story, 40,000-square-foot building last week. Liggins did the ductwork, Barnes and Webb worked on the plumbing, Jordan helped install heating and air conditioning, and John Jones worked on design and plumbing.

Barnes and Webb knew little about plumbing going in, but Beattie liked their desire to learn from mistakes and willingness to go to school to get certified in their new trade, which they're doing twice a week.

"I've never been down on the mat, but I have a lot of respect for someone who can pull himself back up," Beattie said.

Barnes, 26, sold drugs for a decade before his wife persuaded him to stop. He spent two years in jail after being convicted of attempted murder as a juvenile, and he was shot in 2000 while dealing drugs. Things changed when he married and became a father. Barnes said his brother told him about the program at the center.

"I can always have a job now, and I feel like a man," he said. "My daughter, when she looks at me, I can tell her that I'm going to work."

Webb, 36, knew even less about pipes than Barnes when he started working construction. The father of nine children, Webb said he began selling drugs at 15, and his arrest record hit double digits before he signed up for the program.

"Coming from STRIVE ... and seeing where the company brought us to, it's like, 'Man, this is what we've done.' It's really a big accomplishment to say I was part of it. I did that," he said.

Jordan, 28, wasn't coming out of trouble when he heard about the center. He had been a self-employed home improvement contractor for years, making a sustainable income and living a decent life.

"But when bottom fell out of the economy, I fell out, too," Jordan said.

He couldn't find a full-time job and, with no place to turn, he signed up after hearing about the program from his child's mother. Jordan's experience helped when he interviewed for the Mechanical Engineering job - he and John Jones have worked in the construction and engineering fields for years.

John Jones, a former Marine, said he's always enjoyed engineering, but a series of bad decisions left him unemployed with no prospects for a job. He took a position as a security guard with the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain before Beattie hired him, and was able to put his design experience to immediate use.

"They were most impressed that it went on without any major issues as far as the construction end of it," he said.

Joseph Jones said the new building will allow for expanded office, training and conference space, as well as computer labs. The organization received $1 million from the city and a $1 million grant from Betsy and George Sherman for the facility, which is more than twice the size of the center's old building, on Druid Park Avenue.

The new building's dedication is set for Thursday. All that's left to be done are final decorations.

Smiling, Liggins broaches the subject with Joseph Jones, a friendly reminder that, at some point, he and the rest of the MEC crew expect to see their pictures hanging on the walls. Sociable and funny, it's hard to tell if Liggins really wants the photos up or if he's just giving one of his mentors a hard time.

"They can look at our pictures as inspiration," Liggins said.

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