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Once under the shadow of prison walls, trainees learn the mason's art

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It's morning in Wilkinsburg, a Ground Zero for derelict houses, broken windows, boarded-up doorways, blue plastic sheets doubling as roofs. The surroundings are foreboding, if not downright hostile, but not so foreign to five twentysomething masonry students from Garfield, another shopworn Pittsburgh neighborhood.

They're here in Hosanna House, formerly the Horner School — a clean, well-lit place that hosts various community-oriented programs. Down in a 1,000-square-foot former boiler room, the men are working assiduously on their projects, mixing mortar, laying brick and concrete block. 

Supervised by 35-year-old Eric Foust, they are all polite, soft-spoken; they remove dusty, mortar-laden gloves to shake hands in greeting. They all say much the same things: They're happy to be working with their hands, grateful to be in a construction trades pre-apprenticeship program.

What they don't say is that they have all had brushes with the criminal-justice system. Today, in fact, one man in the room will celebrate a highly regarded milestone: He'll have his ankle bracelet removed.

The five are working very hard here. In part that's because with their checkered backgrounds and little education, virtually no employer, contractor or union training program would consider them. They are also working very hard here because, not so long ago, they seemed destined for a life of recidivism — or worse.

Enter Garfield Jubilee. Dedicated to the neighborhood, GJ runs a network of housing and community-support programs, including training young people to be able to make a living. As construction training program coordinator Jim Copeland says, "This is a good opportunity for them."

Since the program began in 2009, it's graduated more than 100 young men who can now use hand and power tools, read blueprints, perform construction math, and so on.

The brick-laying program, run by masonry contractor Steve Shelton, offers a kind of tough-love alternative to the street. Initially motivated by his own desire to hire good bricklayers, Shelton had an epiphany while seeing men loafing on corners. Believing there was an enormous talent pool waiting to be trained, Shelton went to renewal centers and halfway houses, asking, "Do you want to go back to jail, or do you want to get a job?"

Working with Garfield Jubilee, he designed a 10-week program to get the men ready to apprentice in the field. "I tell them no guns, no dope, no booze, no disrespect, no swearing," Shelton says. Within three very long days, Shelton will know if a man will make it. 

"The Garfield Jubilee guys," he says, "are good, very good. They're like a lot of others looking to do something with their lives. All I've got to do is get a set of tools in their hands and put the opportunity in front of them." Shelton pauses to admire the way a wiry man is mixing mortar. "These guys are here a half-hour early every morning — and they're ready to go."

Shelton's proudest day: giving ex-offenders their first paychecks. "That's a win-win for me," he says.

Another winner is Nathan Arnett. After Garfield Jubilee helped him get his GED, he eased into construction. "I was out of work," he says. "A guy called me and said, 'I have a program for you.' I tried it and I like it. I'm learning stuff I never thought I'd know how to do." He pauses to lay some bricks along a wall — level, smooth, the mortar just right. 

"I like working with my hands," Arnett says. "Here I do that instead of sitting in a classroom. It's awesome."

Ten feet away, Lamont Frazier, who is the size of a well-fed defensive lineman, is working on a tricky arch. The final brick, slathered over in mortar, isn't sitting right. Frazier takes it out and shakes his head.

Stepping over, Foust, an 18-year masonry veteran, takes the brick. Foust slaps mortar on four sides, as deftly as a pastry chef, then gently taps the brick in place. Shrugging, pointing, he looks at Frazier, who nods, takes the brick out, and tries the maneuver himself. 

Andre Scott is another man who wants a job. With training in painting, carpentry and demolition under his ample belt, he says, "I wanted to add masonry to my résumé. And I like it. Because when you're finished, you can see the work that you did."

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