By Noelle H. Lowery
The adage “teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime” is alive and well at AMI Kids-Big Cypress, and Director of Education Dr. Derek Tolley is leading the way.
Tolley has created a new vocational training program for AMI Kids’ students that includes certification in construction safety, masonry and electrical trades. This program follows the success of the non-profit organization’s culinary arts certification program in food safety, handling and kitchen management, says Ron Boyce, executive director of AMI Kids-Big Cypress. “A lot of our kids have left and have been able to find employment.”
Both vocational programs focus on Tampa-based AMI Kids core mission: To provide troubled kids with opportunities to transform into responsible young adults with promising futures through positive and motivating programs that inspire learning, leadership and personal growth.
“Our students are multiple credits behind in school by the time they come here,” explains Boyce. “They have made a mistake, and it is very difficult for these young men to make up what they have missed. We give our students the best opportunities once they leave here.”
The goal of the construction program is to prepare students to move on and enter into apprenticeship programs that will employ and continue the educational process until they are fully certified. In the case of a Master Mason certification, the timeline is five years. At AMI Kids, the work starts with the core class, Construction 101. Two instructors certified by the National Center for Construction Education and Research — Tolley and Claudius Knowles — tackle this course with the students.
“This is basic construction safety and knowledge,” notes Tolley. “It is the first level and has all of the basics for all fields.”
The students also go out into the field with Master Mason Luther Vargas, who has volunteered his time to teach them. Their first learning project was to repair the damaged wall of a dumpster enclosure. First, they removed the old blocks that were crumbling, and then the students mixed the mortar and laid the new brick.
According to Boyce, the students jumped right into the project and were very serious about learning the skills. “When a kid started to play around, another student spoke up and said: ‘Hey, chill out, we’re really learning stuff here!’, and he did chill and got back on track,” says Boyce.
The second project will be to build two brick columns at the entrance of the AMI Kids-Big Cypress property, says Tolley. “We are located about four miles off of a dirt road, and many people drive right by it without even knowing they passed the entrance. The students will build two brick columns up at the entrance. It will make the entrance very distinctive,” he explains.
AMI Kids-Big Cypress is working to make its program distinctive as well and has received verbal confirmation from the NCCER that it soon will become an accredited training site. The next step is to institute the electrical trade program. Both steps are instrumental in achieving the mission, agree Boyce and Tolley.
“Most of our students struggle with two things,” Boyce says. “They don’t know how to solve problems or work with other people. This makes it difficult for them to find employment… We know if we can get them to walk into the door of an employer with a nationally recognized certification employers are more likely going to give them a shot and hire them. Once they start working and experiencing success, we are hoping they will stay on that path.”