Last night was a proud milestone for about 200 formerly homeless, incarcerated and drug addicted citizens, and family members who came to support the Doe Fund's Ready, Willing & Able 20th graduation ceremony yesterday evening.
The men and women who graduated from the Ready, Willing & Able program (RWA) have met the requirements to become self-sufficient contributing members of society. Requirements include a holding steady job and having a permanent address.
By transforming society's burdens into viable members of society, the RWA program is saving the city billions of dollars. Each graduate that walked across the stage saved taxpayers close to a million dollars that would have gone towards jails and keeping criminals off the streets.
"This is a model that works," president and founder George McDonald said. 'There's human proof and economic proof that people succeed in this program."
Dallas Davis, a RWA 2011 graduate reclaimed his life after years of alcohol and crack addiction. Forty-eight arrests and five felony cases later, Davis has reconnected with his wife and children and now is the manager of maintenance at the Bowery Residents' Committee (BRC). He is also pursuing an Associates degree and hopes to go into counseling.
"RWA recognized that I was a human being, RWA did what my mom, my teachers, and the judges couldn't do - it showed me that I had potential," Davis said.
His first job with RWA was picking up trash off of the streets on New York. "I learned that by picking up trash, I was actually picking up integrity, values, morals, knowledge, self esteem, " he said. "I was picking up pride, honor and dignity." When he got his first check, RWA enlisted him in a financial planning class so he understood how to fix his credit and save money.
David Driggins, 45, another RWA graduate is proud to be a part of such an amazing team. "I learned a lot about computers, Word, Excel, stuff that I didn't know before," he said. "In a year from now, I see myself as an independent business owner, entrepreneur and property manager."
It was an inspirational ceremony for all -- encouraging any and everybody to realize the true potential of being human. Congressman Charles Rangel made a special speech where he spoke about his tribulations, from a high school drop out, to earning a Purple Heart, to acquiring his law degree, and becoming an assembly member. He warned of relapses, by reflecting on his own experiences, "during the roughest times, there is someone tapping you on the shoulder, saying don't you remember the promise you made? Don't let God down and don't let yourself down," Rangel said in a speech to the graduates.
Everywhere you turned there was a story.
Like Nicholas and Toye Joplin. They have been married for three years. When they first met, Nicholas had an apartment and a way to provide for his wife. He quickly fell into a downward spiraling addiction to crack cocaine. They lost all their money; they lost their apartment, and ended up living in Bellevue Shelter for two years. "It was hard for him as man being homeless, it was hard for him not being able to provide for his family," Toye said.
After 72 prior arrests and 43 convictions, Nicholas is a proud man in blue. The Doe Fund has helped Nicholas get his Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and OSHA maintenance certificates.
The Doe Fund has been a huge help for Nicholas, from letters of recommendation, to advice; the Doe Fund is a part of him. And he is a proud part of the Doe Fund. "It's not something you can easily forget," Nicholas said. "I will always be apart of this."
Since McDonald began handing out sandwiches in Grand Central Station over 20 years ago, RWA has helped tens of thousands of people in New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.
"I just listened to people. I was giving out sandwiches, and they were like 'this is a great sandwich, but I really wished I had a room to stay in and a job to pay for it.' People wanted to work," McDonald said. "And I wanted to help.
"The majority of RWA graduates are African American males. African American males are at a societal disadvantage from the moment that they are born. They start drugs early; they live in poorer communities, and flood the criminal justice system. "Society pretty much gives up on them," he said. "The high incarceration rate of African American males is the civil rights issue of our time." But McDonald applauds the graduates for choosing work over welfare.
He hopes to expand the model to other cities to help the homeless and for the long-term unemployed.