Platoons of veterans on long march back to work

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Melvin Freeman Jr. is piloting the forklift, and he’s pounding the horn as he carries off a practice load of pallets.

Veteran Melvin Freeman Jr. learns how to operate fork lifts at the Forgotten Harvest Distribution Center in Oak Park last month.

Roy Ealy is working with the power pallet jack, pushing it with one hand and honking with the other: Beep! Beep-beep-beep!

The warehouse manager is calling out instructions behind the loading dock at Forgotten Harvest and a few other spectators are calling out encouragement. The beeps keep coming and the machinery keeps going.

It’s the sound of progress. And that faint echo, as the latest group from a veterans training program polishes its credentials?

That might be the sound of redemption.

After several years of test flights, Forgotten Harvest and a squadron of partners officially launched the Skilled Workforce Development Training Program in early March. Bankrolled by the charitable foundations of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and PNC Bank, the program is designed to impart marketable knowledge in food, agriculture, or any other field where related skills might spill over.

Classes take place in venues as close by as the food rescue organization’s commercial kitchen and as far away as Michigan State University. There are also computer training through Oakland County Michigan Works, stress and anger sessions with the Red Cross, seminars on interviewing and resumes, and a brush-up on personal finance through PNC for people who might not have had finances to speak of since before banking went online.

Funding for the program is only guaranteed through June, so it might be a short-lived project. The cohorts are small, only half a dozen people at a time. The program is lengthy, eight solid weeks of long days.

Roy Ealy, 59, a former Air Force administration specialist, learns how to use an electric jack last month at the Forgotten Harvest Distribution Center in Oak Park. He’s working to rebuild his life after it spun out of control.

Those are the downsides. The upsides? Potentially putting people to work, of course. But there’s also the renewal of a sense of purpose for people who used to know where they fit in the world.

Freeman, 62, was a U.S. Army recovery specialist — in civilian-speak, a tow truck driver. He could hook up anything from a Jeep to a tank.

Ealy, 59, was an Air Force administration specialist — in the world without uniforms, a clerk. He typed and filed and kept order.

Since then, life has spun out of control. “I’m clean six months,” says Ealy, who’s living in a halfway house in Detroit.

“Eight months,” says Freeman, who lives in Redford Township.

They’ve both been to prison. That’s hardly a requirement, but everyone in the program has been through things they never expected. Now they’re comparing notes about something better, the certifications they’ll have in hand by the time they muster out.

Forklift operation. Culinary skills, specifically the rapid-fire chopping of vegetables. ServSafe and HACCP, both tied to food safety. Up to seven of them total, verifying that people who once made it through basic training could come back decades later and make it through pesticide training.

“You get older,” says former Army computer technician William Steele, 61, “you start to doubt yourself.”

But this, says Duane Donahoo of Detroit, is proof they saw something through to the finish.

Donahoo, 56, was the Air Force equivalent of an MP, then a machinist and a barber, and then a guy who needed focus.

“We got something to back it up now,” he says. They have folders full of reassurances for employers, and for themselves.

The cost of confidence is $30,000 per group, covering not only training but things like hotel rooms in East Lansing and the van to get there. If it seems like a detour from Forgotten Harvest’s mission, says CEO Kirk Mayes, keep in mind that “there’s more than one kind of hunger.”

“We love to do it,” he says, because the best way to shorten food lines is to make sure people don’t need them.

As he hustles for more funding, the big problem for Mayes is the small scale of the program. The demographics work; he has a particular interest in veterans and former convicts, and the circles have frequently overlapped. But “nobody’s going to fund us long-term doing five or 10 people at a time.”

Conversely, a program that claims a 70 percent success rate for employment among the first 30 alumni doesn’t want to grow so large it loses touch with what works.

“We try to help the program fit the person, instead of the other way around,” says Mark Meadows, community employment coordinator at the John D. Dingell V.A. Medical Center. That might mean housing for someone who’s been in shelters, rides or bus vouchers for someone with no car, or treatment for mental or physical disabilities.

“That’s kind of the beauty of this particular program,” he says.

One tweak he suggests, even though his responsibility is veterans, is blending vets and civilians in the classes. That’s how some of the test sessions were structured, and Meadows found that the two camps learned from one another.

Promptness. There’s a military attribute. Creativity? Score one for the people who’ve lived outside the box.

Ambition? That can be a fresh discovery for anyone.

“I’m here,” says Steele, the former Army technician, “because I was never concerned about the future.”

Now he is, and it looks promising. He and the three others who took spins on the forklift all finished the program late last month. Two who started with them didn’t, one because of health issues.

The sixth gentleman dropped out, but it’s hard to blame him. He got a job.