Learning & earning
Todd Livingston co-founded The Dignity Project to help transform at-risk young men
Published: Monday, January 10, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 8:50 p.m.
Executive director of The Dignity Project, 1125 SE 4th St., (352) 371-6792, www.thedignityproject.com
It's something his board of directors calls the "Todd Factor," and it's been the driving force behind the success of The Dignity Project, a program that strives to transform at-risk youths into young men with an education and an employable skill.
Livingston, 36, co-founded the program in 1997 after years of dreaming. And now his dreams - he keeps coming up with new ones - continually come true.
"I didn't know charity work. I didn't know non-profit work. I just knew there were kids who needed help to get out of their circumstances," he remembers. "And I was always a dreamer."
A notice on The Family Church bulletin board seeking a boat builder led him to Bill Larson, owner of Little River Marine. "When I called, he said that position was filled, but to come on in. We began talking and struck up as immediate friends. I worked for him for six months, and through our many long conversations, I could finally get all the thoughts, all those dreams, out of my head."
Larson had the financial wherewithal to get The Dignity Project off the ground.
"His $2,000 per month contribution covered rent and allowed me to pay two men who were in my church's college ministry to work teaching kids to fix cars." One of those boys was his Little Brother in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, who brought in his cousin, and another boy from the church.
"Our first giveaway was three cars. Since then, God has multiplied it more than hundred-fold," Livingston said.
Backtracking a bit, he remembered the very first car he and Larson had repaired, which met a fiery demise. They worked with residents at the House of Hope, a transitional shelter for men released from prison. An employee at Nationwide needed her car repaired, but could not afford the $800 in costs. The former inmates worked on the car in Livingston's driveway. One afternoon when he started the car to move it closer to the house, he didn't realize the gasoline line was disconnected. The vehicle burned to the ground.
"So now she had NO car. Bill and I got together and bought her another one. She was so appreciative that strangers would do this. That sparked it. Bill and I started dreaming some more. The House of Hope guys were in their 30s and 40s, already in a hard pattern. We wanted to get to boys before destructive patterns were ingrained," Livingston said.
He took his longtime passion for hot rods and transformed it into a unique program that has graduated 60 young men, many of whom continued their education at the Santa Fe Community College Automotive Technology Program. Middle-school-age boys are in the after-school Auto Club, which also includes tutoring and homework help. Older males are in the Academy, which not only pays them about $6 an hour for their 33-hour week, but also rewards them with a $2,700 scholarship to SFCC upon their completion of the six-month program.
There's been more than 150 Auto Club members in the past five years. The Academy currently has 30 students.
Mario Schwarz, an Automotive Technology instructor at SFCC for 17 years, said "We've had a good relationship with Todd and The Dignity Project. It serves a couple of purposes. One is it provides our students with a lot of hands-on experience they may not get here at school. We give them the theoretical training, but repetition is the best teacher, and we don't have the space to provide that here. And we can donate obsolete (but perfectly usable) equipment to them.
"The fact they are taking the cars and re-donating them is a wonderful thing. It really is a win-win-win situation."
Schwarz said SFCC has a cooperative training program, where students take a semester of classes, and then work at Dignity for another.
Livingston didn't go to college himself, and says he fully understands how marketable skills can be learned outside the classroom. But sometimes, the formal education gives students the edge.
"Without a certification, these guys will end up just changing oil someplace. But it's tough to get. You can go to college, but you still have to earn a living. Here at The Dignity Project, the place where you're learning, is the same place you're earning," Livingston said.
The reconditioned cars - about 100 a year - are given outright to people recommended by the Alachua/Bradford WorkForce Board who are leaving the welfare program and are employed. The cars are warrantied for six months or 3,000 miles, and repaired for free. The need for funding early on led to the decision to sell some of the cars to the working poor, elderly and people on Supplemental Security Income - who do not fit the WorkForce criteria, according to Livingston.
Livingston's next dream was to get into construction. For several years he has sent out crews to do home renovations for the needy, often through the State Housing Initiative Partnership programs in Archer, Hawthorne and High Springs. "But they were gone from campus most of the time. I wanted them here, in the backyard," Livingston said.
With help from a board member and builder Tom Spain, he now has a dozen young men building a unique two-part house. The 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath wooden home will be trucked to a site, then the two halves attached.
The crew is also renovating the interior of a travel trailer into a portable dental clinic, which will be towed to Mexico (with a donated truck) this summer on a mission by local dentists.
A third dream of Livingston's was to refurbish computers and donate them to people who need them for school. Nearly 200 computers have been given away in the last 12 months.
He hasn't stopped coming up with ideas.
"I've been dreaming for years to open a cafe to teach restaurant management. The kids could cook and serve paying customers to generate income, then we would operate a meals-on-wheels out the back door for AIDS or cancer patients and others; there's no shortage of hungry people."
A similar concept would be for young women to learn day care, getting training while providing low-cost or free day care. They could earn a scholarship to go to school to learn to open their own home day care.
In the meantime, a second Dignity Project is under way in Port St. Lucie, run by his brother, Chris Livingston. It likewise is growing, with 20 students. "I'd like to see it in every city in the state," Todd Livingston said.
Livingston has no patience for long, drawn-out plans. He's can-do, without a lot of analytical surveys. "Everything we've ever done, we just do. If I had to answer all the questions about an idea, in five years we'd still be talking about it. I get an idea, a dream - either mine or God's - and put it in motion, and all the right things fall into place. You can't help but know someone greater than myself is at work."
His almost constant companion at work is Madison, or Maddie, whom he calls his "miracle baby."
He and his wife of 12 years, Natasha, decided on Valentine's Day 2004 to submit papers to begin private adoption proceedings. The following Easter morning they heard from their attorney that a young woman was offering to give up her baby for adoption, so the couple began preparations in earnest. But the young woman never contacted the attorney again. Then, as fate would have it, Maddie's prospective adoptive family backed out the day she was born, "and since we had already done all the legal stuff, we could go to the hospital and take her home the next day."
Livingston is now living out his dream. "We're not here to give away cars, to build houses. We're here to build young men. But there will always be a community service involved. If we're just teaching to teach, and there's no truly measurable community impact, that's not something we want to be doing.
"I plan on doing this for the rest of my life. I never want to do anything else."
Marina Blomberg can be reached at 374-5025 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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