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Rebuilding the Isaiah Project: Free program prepares trainees for construction trades

NIAGARA FALLS – The Isaiah 61 Project lost some momentum as it went through a recent transition in leadership, its new executive director admits.

But with a new class of trainees starting last week, the program aimed at providing skills in the trades to the under- and unemployed is looking to get back on track.

“I’m pretty confident, now with this class in place, we should be in a little better place to get momentum going,” said the Rev. Kevin M. Wing, who took the helm of the faith-based organization on July 1.

The Isaiah 61 Project, founded in 2012, takes abandoned properties it can buy cheaply from the city and uses them as classrooms for program participants, who learn entry-level skills in carpentry, plumbing, electrical and other trades for free.

The project recently expanded the total amount of training from 400 to 500 hours, a move Wing said will help fill out the education of the participants so they’re better prepared in a competitive job environment.

“The extra 100 hours gave us some opportunity to go a little bit deeper in the weeds in certain areas of those trades,” he said.

This latest class of seven students will be taught by certified instructors from the Orleans-Niagara Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

The trainees will continue to rehabilitate a home at 540 16th St., which other classes started renovating about a year ago, Wing said. Interior work on the house – which had to be gutted because of its condition – will continue, with some framing work, as well as rough plumbing, heating and electrical work to be done by this group of students.

The class – with six hours of instruction daily – will last roughly 16 weeks, so this group will be done around the end of November. In the end, participants get access to free job placement services, as well as their own tool set.

Last fall, former Executive Director Jim Haid left the program – which has graduated 80 students so far – and since then the Rev. Mark Perkins had been serving as interim executive director.

Wing called Haid’s departure “a speed bump” for his organization’s progress, and said one of his goals as the new executive director will be for Isaiah 61 to turn around housing renovation projects faster. He called that his group’s biggest challenge. Taking a year or more to get a house back on the market is too long, he said.

Wing, who said he owns two painting and wallpapering businesses in addition to his church activities, said his goal over the next year is to implement a few ideas that will get projects done faster.

The Christian-based organization – named for a Bible verse that calls upon the people to, with God’s help, “raise up the former desolations and ... repair the waste cities, the desolations of many generations” – recently partnered with ReNU Niagara for grant-writing services.

The group will be leasing from the city a former firehouse at 3721 Highland Ave., as the building is being turned into the organization’s training center. As part of that vacant building’s rehabilitation, asbestos was removed from the structure and a new roof is being installed.

The rehabilitation is expected to be completed this fall, said Seth A. Piccirillo, director of the city’s Community Development Department.

Recent reductions in Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority bus service will make it harder for individuals to get to the BOCES facility in Sanborn, which makes having such a facility within the city a more effective option, Piccirillo said in an email.

The Isaiah 61 Project last year operated a reclaim store on Hyde Park Boulevard, taking donations of unwanted and vintage building materials and selling them to help fund its operations.

Because of the amount of space needed for training at the former firehouse, Wing said there won’t be any space for the store in the new building, as the organization had previously had. So for now, that element of the operation – which Wing called “a good idea” – is on hold, though Wing admitted he’s not sure if that will ever get resurrected.

Wing also said he is planning to reach out to those at area churches.

“We’re a faith-based organization, and while we receive public funds, getting added support from the faith community is really going to be huge.”