Published: Saturday, January 4, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 4, 2003 at 3:13 a.m.
Directly behind the D'Acosta House in Gainesville's Duck Pond neighborhood, a group of men and women prepared to raise a wall on the second-floor addition to the historic Victorian home.
FYI: DIGNITY PROJECT
Toiling with hammers to frame up the wall and floors, the crew of 12 has grown much closer since they laid the brick that now marks the house's foundation.
Purchased in 2001 by the Alachua County Housing Authority, the D'Acosta House eventually will be fully restored to its original 1880s condition, and, along with two additions, will serve as the organization's headquarters.
But the real conversions take place every day among the young adults and teenagers belonging to the Dignity Project who call this project home.
"I had a kid, so I had to quit GED classes to get a full-time job," said 21-year-old Tromma Robinson, one of 22 young adults now working toward a scholarship through the Dignity Project. "I want to move to a bigger city and become a contractor or brick mason. I'm kind of attached to laying bricks and have had it in my mind all my life to be a carpenter."
What began four years ago as an after-school auto club with 12 high school students who provided transportation for the needy now serves 35 students. Dignity Project also serves 22 others through auto and construction academies, which provide 1,800 hours of hands-on experience, a salary and a scholarship.
Todd Livingston, the executive director and founder of the Dignity Project, began with a limited budget and one thing in mind: to help at-risk kids get an education and gain job skills.
Since 1998, the Dignity Project has helped more than 85 teenagers and more than 50 high school dropouts. The program now contracts with the Alachua/Bradford Regional Workforce Board to provide transportation to those in need and has given away 263 cars and performed free car repairs on 356 vehicles.
Last year, the project began a construction component with eight students who built an environmentally friendly house in High Springs, renovated a Gainesville home and performed four energy upgrades, such as installing new windows, doors and water heaters, through the Housing Authority.
This year, the construction academy has 12 members who are working on the D'Acosta renovation. While gaining hands-on experience for a year through the academies, participants earn $9,600, qualify for health and child care, take GED classes and earn a $4,725 scholarship through AmericaCorps toward a higher education.
"They learn the hard skills, but they also learn the soft skills like showing up on time and showing up every day," said Livingston, a former youth pastor. "We just fit a certain niche because what we do for high school dropouts is unique. I get to be Dad and meet the real needs of these kids."
Though he calls them kids, the average age of the academies' participants is 24. Two-thirds of them did not graduate from high school and are working toward their GED.
But others, like Robyn Higginbotham, 27, are coming back to broaden their horizons.
A former corrections officer who previously studied engineering in Chicago, Higginbotham has four children and intends to obtain a bachelor's degree from the University of Florida so she can teach engineering or construction.
"This is the best job I've ever worked on because the Dignity Project is not like an ordinary job," said Higginbotham, who now attends Santa Fe Community College. "I've learned so much; I've thought about going into contracting. I had no idea that construction was all math, and I have the engineering background for it. The job market has changed so much. I just want to be versatile."
Auto academy student Josen Vega, 23, agreed.
"I can't tell you how much this has been worth," said Vega, who is raising a 1-year-old and 3-year-old with his wife, Denise, and plans to earn an auto mechanic's degree from SFCC. "They've helped me in every aspect of my life."
"Not many people take them under their wings like we do," added Livingston, who said the project still needs car donations on a regular basis.
Construction on the D'Acosta House, located at 703 NE 1st St., is expected to be completed in the next year.
Cathi Carr can be reached at 374-5086 or carrc@ gvillesun.com
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