Two years ago, Aldene Burton was living under a bridge, sipping vodka from the bottle and eating beans from a can in zero-degree weather.
But next month, Burton will be sitting in a lecture hall at Goodwin College, where he will take a course in public speaking.
Goodwin College in East Hartford, known as a haven for nontraditional students, is offering free classes this September to people who are homeless or formerly homeless.
Burton is among the students who completed a year of classes at the Beat of the Streets Center for Creative Learning, run by the Charter Oak Cultural Center since last September. Taught by volunteer professionals, the free classes are held in the basement of the First Church of Christ on Gold Street. Students must complete at least 12 courses, of four two-hour classes each, to graduate. About 15 classes are offered per semester, and anyone can participate. Eight students graduated from the program in May after taking classes that included journalism, nonviolent communication and social media.
When some of the students approached Charter Oak Executive Director Donna Berman last year about furthering their education, she said, she immediately started working with Goodwin College President Mark Scheinberg to arrange the free college classes.
"I have this philosophy that the most important thing we can say to one another is, 'I believe in you,' " Berman said. "I hope these students see that they can really do anything; that despite all of the constraints that have been imposed on them in their childhood, by society, by the government, they can really flourish."
A ROUGH BEGINNING
Burton, 62, wakes up at 6 every morning in the St. Elizabeth House at Mercy Housing and Shelter Corp. on Main Street in Hartford and thanks God he's still alive.
He reads the 119th Psalm from his well-thumbed Bible, dons one of the 30 suits he purchased from thrift stores and travels half a mile from the transitional housing facility to the First Church of Christ to attend class.
Burton spent six years living under a New Britain bridge, collecting cans for money, before moving to transitional housing about two years ago.
Before he was homeless, Burton said, he worked as a maitre d' and a log-cabin builder, among other jobs. He relied on his aunt for housing and financial support, but Burton said that when she died suddenly of a heart attack, he was evicted from her house in New Britain. He started receiving Social Security for a vision disability, but said he spent most of the money on his friends, and alcohol.
Burton said that becoming homeless was partly his decision; he wanted to know why people became homeless, and who they were.
"I talked to the homeless for two years, I drank whiskey from the bottle and ate beans out of the can," he said. "I talked to mothers and fathers and grandmothers and people from all over the world and the particular dilemma or circumstances that brought them here. God doesn't discriminate against the rich or poor, and what I found is that all these people were the same as you and me."
After living under the bridge for four years, Burton finally decided he wanted to make a change.
"I was sitting under the bridge one night, it was 3 degrees above zero, I was sitting in my blankets with my vodka and I thought to myself, 'Nobody knows I'm here and nobody cares,' " Burton said. "But that's not the point -- the point is I don't have to be here. Every day is a challenge to find something good to do, to make something wrong right, and that's what I'm trying to do."
Burton, who finished a year at Miami Dade College in Florida when he was younger, said he's not interested in getting a degree. He will take an introductory computer class and a public speaking class because he wants to learn specific skills that he can use to pursue his goals.
"I could take more classes, but I'm too old to go to school," said Burton. "I'm not looking for an education. I'm looking to better myself."
Burton said he often spends hours in the Hartford Public Library reading everything from Machiavellian political theory to Thoreau's theories on transcendentalism. And he won't enter Goodwin College's halls unprepared -- he has already read numerous lectures by college professors.
Burton also already has some experience with public speaking, but he wants more. He spent the past legislative session talking to lawmakers and politicians about the Homeless Bill of Rights, which he wrote with the help of community organizer Nathan Fox. The bill, which was signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Friday, and goes into effect Oct. 1, offers the homeless protection from police harassment, among other things.
"If I'm going to be a public speaker, I should know how to do it," Burton said. "If the spotlight hits me, I should be able to rise to the occasion and proceed gracefully, as opposed to not knowing."
Salvatore Pinna, 51, a Charter Oak graduate who will take a reading and writing course at Goodwin College, said he has been homeless since his mother died of pancreatic cancer in 1994. He said he sleeps outside, "anywhere that's safe."
"When I was going to high school I was smart, but I wanted to go out and have fun. I was a dreamer when I was young," Pinna said. "I thought I would chase my dreams and do what I wanted to do instead of learning."
Pinna said his childhood was the happiest part of his life. After graduating from a Long Island high school, he found a screen-printing job decorating shirts, jackets and hats. But when the business owners died and it closed, Pinna couldn't find another job and had to move in with his mother and get unemployment.
"That was no picnic," he said. "After she died, everything went downhill."
Pinna said his stepfather kicked him out of the house, and blamed his mother's death on him.
"I can't forgive him for doing that," Pinna said. "That's one of the reasons I'm in the predicament I'm in, because he kicked me out. It was tough; it was bad. I ended up becoming homeless because of it."
Pinna, who eventually moved from Long Island to Connecticut, said he doesn't like to stay in shelters during the summer. He is on multiple waiting lists for transitional housing, he said.
Pinna said that if the Goodwin class goes well, he could see himself getting a degree. He is now a regular contributor to the Beat of the Streets newspaper, which is distributed throughout Hartford.
"I had a lot of time to think it over, and I said 'Why not?' I hope it makes me able to read better, helps me understand more what I'm reading," Pinna said.
Pinna said as long as he's learning something, he's happy.
"I think I've changed for the better," he said. "Now I always want to broaden my horizons. You always want to surpass what you've already learned."
Berman and Scheinberg say they hope the Goodwin College courses are a turning point for students like Burton and Pinna.
"Some members of the [Charter Oak] class told me, 'We never thought we were smart, nobody ever told us they believe in us, and we're starting to think maybe we are smart and we could maybe go to college,' " Berman said.
Five students from Charter Oak will take one class each, valued between $1,700 and $2,000. School supplies such as books will be provided free of charge.
Scheinberg said he doesn't know of any other Connecticut colleges that offer free classes to the homeless. Goodwin College has encouraged people in transitional housing to take free classes, but this is the first time that people living on the streets will be accepted.
"The problem you have with the homeless is their stability. They are every bit as smart and capable as everybody, and by the grace of God, things just didn't work out," Scheinberg said. "We really feel that we have the ability to make change in these peoples' lives."
Scheinberg said Goodwin College has many resources to offer disadvantaged students, including a food pantry and diaper bank; the school even offers emergency temporary housing to some students. He said he will work with Berman to determine how to continue to help the students after the classes end; he might try to get Charter Oak students who aren't housed into transitional housing.
"If you're worried about where you're sleeping tonight, you're probably not worried about quadratic equations," Scheinberg said. "We know they are academically prepared. The issue isn't academics, it's social preparedness and stability. We hope that a light will go up for them that they actually have more to offer to the world than what they've done so far."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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