SOAR graduates discover hope

Jamika Morris

Jamika Morris: `I don’t want her (daughter) to know the struggle I did.’

Class 1: `

Class 1: `I love you all. My classmates are the real MVPS.’

Proud dad Ras Yeremiah Tafari and graduate Ras Tosh Tafari

Dad Ras Yeremiah Tafari and graduate Ras Tosh Tafari.




The tears started before the words.

“I was tired of struggling,” said Jamika Morris, 20, of Avondale, waving her laminated certificate of completion and standing behind the podium.

“I don’t want (her 1-year-old daughter) to know the struggle I did. She is going to have a trust fund, so when she graduates from high school she can go straight to college.”

On Friday afternoon, Morris joined 15 other graduates in completing the Greater Cincinnati Urban League’s first off-campus job-readiness class. It is the first of 11 the League will offer as part of Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley’s $1.12 million Hand Up Initiative; the Urban League received $250,000.

The second Hand Up class will begin July 27 in Madisonville. Other neighborhood sites in the next year will include Westwood, East Price Hill and Mount Auburn. Transportation is a barrier to class attendance — and job retention — so the logic is to take the program to the neighborhoods.

Until now, this Urban League flagship, three-week job-readiness class, SOAR (Solid Opportunities for Advancement and Retention), have been held at the League’s Avondale campus.

While the location changed – the Hampton Inn, Corryville – the raw emotion is the same. People who’d largely endured negative reinforcement begin the process of transforming their lives through the soul-bearing course.

Corryville is in Uptown, the part of the city that offers the region’s second highest concentration of jobs, behind only Downtown Cincinnati.

“Everybody has a light that needs to shine. Thank you to the Urban League for giving me the chance to better myself.” — Justin Keith.

Rob Rodgers, a program director in the Urban League’s Workforce Development department, opened the hour-long graduation ceremony by singing what he termed a “song about dedication.

“The itsy bitsy spider crawled up the water spout,” he sang along with graduates, who stood to join him. “Down came the rain and washed the spider out. “Out came the sun and dried up all the rain. And the itsy bitter spider crawled up the spout again.”

… “Think about it,” Rodgers said. “It’s about getting back up again after being knocked down.”

“I did this so my little nephews and nieces could look up to me.” – DeAndre Fannon.

Morris knows plenty about rain and being washed out. She said a disagreement with her mother during the class forced her one morning to walk more than two miles from Burton Avenue in Avondale to the Hampton Inn.

“We had to literally ring out her jacket when she got her,” said John Garner, SOAR trainer who led the class. “It shows her determination. She did not want to let herself or her classmates down.”

The downpour was not the first of her life. At age 8, Morris was place in foster care by her mother. She did not finish high school. She ran away. A marijuana habit caused her to drift, she said, for two years.

Then she experienced incidents of sexual and physical abuse by family members.

“Those are always the ones,” she said.

“To be real, I was convicted of a crime in 2012. I didn’t know where to go. … I found myself in this class.” – Iris Jennings.

Started in 1998, SOAR graduates 81 percent of its participants; 76 percent find full-time employment. They earn an average first-year salary of $21,262 and inject $4 million into the local economy.

About 63 percent of SOAR graduates retain jobs for at least 12 months.

During the three-week course, men receive dress clothes suitable for interviews from the League’s Gentlemen’s Clothing Closet. Women receive two sets of clothing, the first through the Freestore Foodbank’s Back on Track store and then from its Dress for Success subsidiary. Often dressed on Day 1 in street clothes – shorts, T-shirts, sleeveless tops, gym shoes – participants are required to dress appropriately for business over the final 12 days.

Trainer Garner told of seeing one graduate wearing his suit while riding his bicycle home from class one afternoon up Reading Road.

“I’m never taking this suit off. I never had one before. I feel different with it on, better.” – Daniel Jones.

Upon graduation, SOAR participants get a plastic binder for their resume and other personal documents needed for work.

More than a physical gift, graduates receive a promise that the League will continue to support them in the job-search process and onto developing a career and managing their money.

“If I call, pick up the phone. And if you change your number, I will still find you,” said workforce development specialist Edna Avelino, herself a SOAR graduate who has worked for the Urban League for two years. “We are here to help.”

The agency provides follow-up services for its program graduates, ranging from helping to update resumes to providing bus tokens. Some graduates have received helped renewing revoked driver’s licenses or recalculating child support payments.

The phrase goes, “Once an Urban Leaguer, always an Urban Leaguer.”

“I was tired of sitting around and waiting for handouts.” – Kijana Davis.

SOAR creates something new inside its participants, people who otherwise had rarely been told they have value or had ever been able to complete anything.

“Hope,” said Greg Walker, the League’s SOAR trainer. Its next Avondale class begins July 6.

“SOAR takes people who’ve lost hope or never had it and shows them a light at the end of a dark tunnel,” Walker added. “It gives them empowerment to change their tomorrow if they want to.”

Morris wants to change her future. All she has to do is think about her daughter, Dalila. Morris said she receives $222 a month in support from the girl’s father, which goes to diapers, wipes and baby formula.

She would like to marry, but her child’s father is not for her. “I have self-value and self-respect,” she said. “I never had a dad in my life. I was not close to my mother. I had to raise myself.”

“I feel good right now. I wrote a graduation poem. I wrote it at the bus stop this morning. It’s short. `Preparation, dedication, and sacrifice were the keys for me.’” – Ras Tosh Tafari.

Morris already has moved toward a new life. She worked through a temporary service while attending SOAR from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. She did housekeeping, cooking and busing tables.

“Sometimes I had to work until midnight or 1 p.m., but I still got up and made it to class,” she said.

Morris wants to get into the League’s Construction Connections program. SOAR graduation is a requirement. Connections is a nine-week pre-apprenticeship course that provides graduates several industry certifications upon completion, including those provided by the National Center for Construction Education and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“That’s what I want to do for the short-term,” she said. “Long-term, I want to be a nurse.” First, she plans to complete her high school education and earn her diploma.

“I was in my second stage of cancer and felt myself dying. That’s why I went to the Urban League.” – Shaneishewa George.

The next Hand Up Initiative SOAR class will begin July 27 at the Madisonville Arts & Cultural Center, 5021 Whetsel Ave. Eligible participants must live in Madisonville.

Information sessions will be held July 6, 13 and 20 from 6-8 p.m. at the center. Thursday sessions will be from 10 a.m. to noon, also at the center.

The course is strategically being offered in Madisonville, within two miles of the new Kroger Marketplace being built at Oakley Station. The Kroger Co. hires SOAR graduates and provides SOAR training assistance.

In addition to the Arts & Cultural Center, Madisonville SOAR is sponsored by the Madisonville Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation. Call Lionell Roberts at (513) 913-3413 for more information.

“I saw the opportunity right in front of my face to better myself as a person. My classmates, I love you all. My classmates are the real MVPs.” – Shyrena Thomas.

These Companies are Transformational Supporters of the Urban League’s Corporate Heritage Annual Giving Program.