ST. ALBANS – Early Thursday afternoon, a handful of parolees and probationaries boarded a Northwest Technical Center (NWTC)-supplied bus in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ South Burlington parking lot, trading jabs and jokes like high schoolers on a field trip.

Between them were years of time served in state correctional facilities. Some served time for domestic assault. Some had robberies listed under their name. Most were recovering from addiction.

All, however, were looking for a way to put that past behind them, a goal that brought each of them into a Franklin – Grand Isle Restorative Justice Center pilot program for construction training that, ideally, could connect them to a future career somewhere in the trades.

It’s that program that led them to a South Burlington parking lot Thursday afternoon.

“I’ll be the first to admit I was a rotten person before, but… it’s important to show what we’re doing here,” said John Tatro, one of the nine participants. “We have an opportunity to change and we’re trying to change.”

By the end of the program, participants will receive formal credentials from the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), a nationally recognized standard bearer for construction education, as well as certifications under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

With those credentials in hand, they’ll be set up to work in the construction or trades world, providing a career path in fields where the state has a workforce shortage.

“I had been an early advocate for second chances,” said Kathy Lavoie, the restorative justice center’s steward for this program. “But with the economy being the way it is and so few people joining the workforce, especially here in Vermont, it makes economic sense as well.”

The program, focused namely on a construction-based education, has two tiers.

The first tier is built around NCCER curriculum on employability and communication skills, basics that, according to Lavoie, can really be used in any field.

A second tier is tailored more directly to construction, with courses in math, drawings and materials.

Those credits, according to Lavoie, could be transferred to Vermont Adult Learning’s General Education Development – or GED – program, which could help a few of the program’s participants who didn’t finish high school earn a diploma.

At the same time, participants in the pilot will have taken OSHA’s 10-hour training program, providing them with a standardized basic workplace safety education.

“For me, it is absolutely critical that we put these guys at least at a training level equal with individuals going into the workplace,” said Lavoie “They need to be truly competitive at least at that level because they absolutely have some other disadvantages they’ll need to overcome with a lawyer.”

Participants in the Franklin – Grand Isle Restorative Justice Center’s new construction pilot program tour the Advanced Welding Institute in South Burlington. (MICHAEL FRETT, Messenger Staff)

The program was designed with an awareness that participants will likely be at a disadvantage when it comes to entering the workforce.

They’ll likely have to disclose their criminal backgrounds with employers, and many face other challenges related to transportation to job sites in Chittenden County and work schedules that’ll have to also accommodate treatments for drug addictions and mandated Dept. of Corrections programming.

Those same barriers, Lavoie said, made scheduling this pilot program a challenge, as schedules had to be shuffled around programming from the Dept. of Corrections, jobs, housing curfews, scheduled treatments and other appointments that make transitions out of incarcerations such a challenge.

“They’ll be the first to admit those barriers are self-imposed,” Lavoie said, but added that transportation in particular “keeps [her] up at night,” as many of the program’s participants have outstanding fines and records keeping them from a driver’s license.

That, mixed with an almost outright absence of public transportation and the general costs of keeping a vehicle, makes transportation one of the largest barriers in general for those transitioning out of correctional facilities, according to Lavoie.

Participants in the restorative justice center’s construction pilot will be filling out “transportation plans” that should set them up to start working around that barrier, but for some, she warns, those barriers are steep.

There were also delays caused by missing pieces of identification needed from those interested in participating: a picture identification, a birth certificate and a social security card. Tracking down those records once participants left a correctional facility took time, according to Lavoie, pushing the start of the restorative justice center’s construction pilot out another month.

This placed the program’s expected conclusion in August, near the end of the height of the annual construction season.

The program also includes hands-on construction experience.

Over the course of two months, participants will be working in the Martha’s Community Kitchen parking lot, building a pair of Amish-style sheds for the community kitchen and the Hard’ack Recreation Area. 

They’re already about a month into that building schedule, and those driving by Martha’s Community Kitchen will likely see the fruits of that labor in the form of those sheds’ wooden frames starting to take shape in the back of the kitchen’s parking lot.

The restorative justice center’s construction program is largely grant funded, with additional support from the state’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation – often shorthanded as “Voc Rehab” – and the Dept. of Labor. Voc Rehab provided equipment for the program’s participants, and both organizations worked with Lavoie to vet applicants for the program.

Besides oversight from the restorative justice center, the construction pilot is also being taught with the help of NWTC building trades teacher – and Kathy Lavoie’s son – Ross Lavoie.

The president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ local branch, Tim LaBombard, speaks with participants of the Franklin – Grand Isle Restorative Justice Center’s construction pilot program about the union’s education program. (MICHAEL FRETT, Messenger Staff)

This past Thursday, eight of the program’s nine participants – plus one other shadowing some of the class work – boarded a bus for South Burlington with a Lavoie-arranged itinerary scheduling stops at the Advanced Welding Institute and local branches of international electrician union and the plumbers, pipefitters and air conditioning union.

The intention, according to Lavoie, was to present a next step for some of those currently working through the restorative justice center’s programming, with tours built around “dream jobs” identified by the program’s participants when they started. “They’re like everybody else,” Lavoie said. “They have dreams – some of them are new dreams and some of them have been there all along.”

Some of the more popular trade skills selected included welding and plumbing, but, as one member of Thursday’s tour group noted, there was still a lot to think about before taking the next step into the trades.

“Some of us might be trying to figure it out,” said one member of the tour group during a stop at the Advanced Welding Institute. “Some of us know, but some of us are trying to figure it out.”

At the end of the tour, at least one member stopped to meet with a representative from the plumbers’ union, whose training program, according to Lavoie, was one of the best options in the state.

On the bus ride back, participants once again traded jokes back and forth while bragging about a photograph they took with St. Albans City Mayor Tim Smith at their Martha’s Community Kitchen construction site.

At a gas station in Georgia, on the road back to St. Albans, the Messenger spoke briefly with one of the program’s participants, Chris Benson, who mentioned he had a background in construction before he ultimately served time in corrections.

“It opens doors some people wouldn’t think possible because of our past,” Benson said of the restorative justice center’s program. “People can look at who we are now, not just back at what we were.”

Editor’s note: For more on this program, see Kathy Lavoie’s guest editorial in this weekend’s Messenger.