In the ashes of tragedy, hope and opportunity arise

July 26, 2017 | GET MORE : Community

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With U.S. Bank's help, an empowerment center is opening on the site of a convenience store burned down during 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Mo.

After he lost his well-paying job as an electrical apprentice in St. Louis and his car was repossessed, Will Donlow felt despondent – how would he support his wife and toddler son?

Donlow enrolled in the Save Our Sons workforce training program at the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis and it changed his life.

The Urban League started the Save Our Sons program in response to the racial unrest fomented by the 2014 killing of African-American teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. The idea was to provide a path to employment for African-American men who weren't getting opportunities. 

For Donlow, Save Our Sons was a turning point. After graduating from the four-week soft-skills building program, he landed a job as a low-volt electrician, earning $20 an hour. Within three months, he was promoted and now makes $22 an hour. 

"The program was excellent," Donlow said. "I gave my time, talent and treasure to an organization that was willing to help me, and now I have those same things for my family. I don’t have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet. I am able to spend time with my son and my family. Now I’m able to give back."

Save Our Sons is relocating to the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center, which opened July 26 on the site of the QuikTrip convenience store and gasoline station that was burned down in the unrest after Brown's death. U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation, a division of U.S. Bank, donated $20,000 and invested $2 million in New Markets Tax Credit equity in the $5.8 million project. 

"We are very hopeful at the Urban League and with all of our partners that the tragic incidents in Ferguson that led to the burning of the QuikTrip will turn into a triumphant moment for Ferguson and the surrounding community along with the thousands of residents we are serving," Urban League President and CEO Michael P. McMillan said.

The center houses not just Save Our Sons and Urban League operations but also several other nonprofit organizations aimed at serving Ferguson and surrounding economically distressed areas. Tenants include the Lutheran Church of Missouri, the University of Missouri Extension and the Salvation Army. 

"As a long-time supporter of the Urban League in St. Louis, U.S. Bank invested in the Community Empowerment Center because of the great need low-income families have for job training, general and financial education, mental health services and more," said Frankie Eichenberger, St. Louis retail market leader for U.S. Bank and a long-standing Urban League board member. "I firmly believe this center will transform a vortex of pain and strife into a fountain of hope and opportunity."

Beside the Empowerment Center and its ongoing financial support, U.S. Bank employees help Urban League clients with home heating assistance applications and read to students at the league's Head Start centers. To encourage children to read at home, the bank set up a program to reward kids with new books when they reach milestones for reading at home with their parents.

Now, Save Our Sons is demonstrating yet more of the Urban League's success in a region that is plagued with 7.5 percent unemployment for African-Americans. It has trained 400 St. Louis area men, including several from Ferguson. Half have found employment after graduating from SOS – a phenomenal success rate, said Director Jamie Dennis.

"A lot of these gentlemen have been kicked down," Dennis explained. "When they come through these doors, our job is, first of all, to build them up. (We also teach) CIA – credibility, integrity and accountability. We are teaching people that if you want to make a change, the first thing you have to start with is yourself."

Dennis' work – really more of a mission, he says – is giving men self-respect and hope they haven't experienced. It is particularly evident at the program's graduation ceremony.

"I've seen grown men who break out crying," Dennis explained. "(They say) 'This is the first time I can recall in my life that I’ve been given a certificate for completing something.' It becomes so compelling to know it's actually making a difference." 

Bringing Save Our Sons to the Empowerment Center and even closer to those it would serve is a wonderful step, Dennis said.

"It's going to make the community buy into us even more because now we are in their back yard," he said. "That’s turning a tragedy into a triumph. They are finally going to have something they are proud of."

Shera Dalin is a member of U.S. Bank's public affairs and communications team.