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Hartford Classes Give Skills, Confidence To Those With History Of Homelessness


April 04, 2013

HARTFORD The students at this school take no exams. The occasional homework is not mandatory, report cards are nonexistent and there is no pressure to attend every class.

"It's a hassle-free education," said Jan Bartrop-Babbitt, dean of the Charter Oak Cultural Center's B.O.T.S. Center for Creative Learning. "Here, everybody is successful."

Since September, in the basement of First Church of Christ on Gold Street, about a dozen adults with a history of homelessness have been taking free, twice-a-week workshops on subjects such as videography, journalism, creative writing, leadership and how to use social media.

Students said the classes have given them job skills and in some cases, a renewed sense of self.

"I learned more in the last four months than I learned in my whole educational life," said Aldene Burton, 62, an advocate for the homeless who attends school in a suit and tie.

Instructors are professionals, such as writer Susan Campbell, who volunteer to teach. The informal curriculum is open to any adults who can spare two hours on Wednesday and Friday mornings. "You don't have to be homeless, you don't have to be jobless," Bartrop-Babbitt said.

Many students have been associated with the Beat of the Street (B.O.T.S.) newspaper for Hartford's homeless, which the Charter Oak Cultural Center founded, and said the classes have improved their writing and interviewing techniques.

"I come here because I need it," said Robert Andrews, 61, the poetry and arts editor for Beat of the Street, using the pen name Justin Sweetwater. Andrews has slept in cars and under bridges during points in his life, he said.

"I had 40 jobs in 18 years but this is one of the things I enjoy doing most," said Andrews, who helps cook a free breakfast for students before class, and afterward, writes a poem for the morning's instructor.

In April and May, the curriculum includes workshops on photography and navigating the health care and legal systems. A graduation is planned for May 16 and classes are being developed for summer and fall.

Goodwin College in East Hartford is also working on a pilot program with the Charter Oak Cultural Center in which some B.O.T.S. students can take a free course or two at the college, said Matt Engelhardt, a Goodwin spokesman.

Last week, several students gathered in the church basement with Mark Friedman, a former computer science professor at Central Connecticut State University who is now a career consultant. Friedman taught them about Myers-Briggs, the personality test, and how learning about their traits could help them refine their job search.

Adrienne Lombardo of New Britain told Friedman that she has trouble sitting at a computer for a long time, but that she is not a procrastinator. When Friedman suggested that her temperament might lean toward an adventurer, the 62-year-old sounded relieved.

"I'm an OK person," said Lombardo, smiling. "I've been told I'm not OK."

Later, Lombardo said she was homeless as a teenager after delving into drugs and alcohol. She learned how to read in her 30s and is now an avid reader. "In school, I felt intimidated," she said, but not anymore.

"I'm 62 and I really don't know who I am ... But this class this class," she said, has made her confident. She can speak up for herself now.

"I want to be a better person," said Burton, a former maitre d' who lives in transitional housing in Hartford. He was homeless in New Britain for four years, as recently as age 60, when Burton said he was mocked by college students as he pushed a cart and collected cans on a university campus.

In late March, Burton said, he put newfound leadership skills to use. About 50 people had gathered in New Britain to mourn the death of a homeless man. There was no focal point for the memorial, so with the money left in Burton's pocket, he bought a candle. He said he also recruited people in the crowd to be speakers.

"We put together a program and it came out beautiful," Burton said. "It was a wonderful thing."

"They're different people as a result of these classes," said Bartrop-Babbitt, the dean.

For Friedman, the experience has been mutual.

When he lived in Hartford's West End, Friedman said he would occasionally come across homeless people who would ask him for money, and he would keep walking.

Friedman viewed that population through the lens of a "stereotype as opposed to thinking about somebody who might have administrative skills, or somebody who might have speaking skills, or somebody who might be able to be a researcher," he said.

"I got to see the differences and the potential in people."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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