For years, Justin Williams has been bouncing around from job to job, never holding down anything stable, feeling frustrated and "really down and out," until Save Our Sons threw him a lifeline.
Launched by the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, Save Our Sons is a program that aims to give young African-American men the skills they need to find a job and build a career in a competitive job market in which the going has long been tough for blacks.
"I really need to take a chance," the 36-year-old native of the St. Louis suburb of Northwoods, who is mid-way through his month-long Save Our Sons training, told AFP.
Williams sees himself one day in health care, but "I really just want an opportunity just so I can run with it, see where I can go with it -- and one thing Save Our Sons taught me is that it really doesn't matter where you start" on that quest for a big break.
This week, the Urban League unveiled bold plans to shift Save Our Sons into high gear with a job training center to be constructed on the site of a QuikTrip gas station looted and set ablaze in a riot the day after Brown's death.
- Land for free -
Oklahoma-based QuikTrip is donating the land for the $500,000 Ferguson Community Empowerment Center on West Florissant Avenue that will also provide counseling on housing issues as well as community mental health services.
The lobby is to feature a mural in memory of Brown, whose death August 9 -- in an altercation with a white police officer around the corner from the QuikTrip -- touched off nationwide protests and soul-searching about race and policing in America today.
"It is our goal to take it (the location) and turn it into a phoenix rising from the ashes," said Urban League president Michael McMillan. "People will see it as St. Louis moving in the right direction."
Founded in 1918, the Urban League has been helping African-Americans in the lower-income northern half of St Louis County for years, but McMillan said women, not men, have tended to be the ones most willing to sign up for its jobs programs.
In the aftermath of Brown's shooting, he said, "every single day when we were out on West Florissant, we talked to young men and asked them what they needed. They all said jobs."
Nationwide, unemployment for African-American men in February stood at 10.4 percent, compared to 4.5 percent for their white counterparts, after a Great Recession peak of 19.3 percent in March 2010.
- Three times higher -
But in St. Louis County, from 2011 through 2013, it has averaged 17 percent, versus 5.8 percent for whites, according to Census Bureau data cited by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper.
Save Our Sons is a tailored four-week program that teaches groups of 15 men each how to find a job, how to keep a job, how to score a promotion and how to network in hopes of moving up to even better employment.
Participants get to meet chief executives from St Louis area companies and hear how their own journeys up to the coveted corner office started at the bottom rungs of the career ladder, behind a cash register or in a parking lot.
"I liken it to the first 30 days of having a job," said Jamie Dennis, a Save Our Sons instructor. "We're very strict about attendance, punctuality, whether or not performance is up to par."
The objective is for every participant to get a job. Since the program began in January, about 70 percent have done so, and "we are still working with the remaining participants to help them get placed," said Herta Shikapwashya, the Urban League's vice president for workplace development.
Marcus Allen, 30, didn't have to go far. After successfully completing the program, he got hired by the Urban League itself to be a custodian at its branch in Jennings, a St Louis suburb next door to Ferguson.
- Thinking big -
It might not be glamorous, but it is 40 hours a week, with steady pay and daytime hours that permits the father of two to spend quality time with his family -- and to think big.
"The Save Our Sons program is getting bigger and bigger," he said.
"Hopefully I would be able to move up with them -- maybe one day have my own Save Our Sons class (to instruct). That would be a great goal for me. But, everything in due time."