Learning a skilled trade can be life-altering for homeless youth

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Shantelle Wiscombe is a skilled carpenter who absolutely loves her job building custom staircases for a Newmarket firm.

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At 22, she has an independent life and a very bright future, not so different from others her age, perhaps. But not that long ago, Wiscombe was dealing with homelessness and addiction.

After a childhood spent in foster care and group homes, she was lacking any sort of road map for adult life.

“My family struggles a lot. I had never really lived a stable life,” Wiscombe said in a recent interview. 

But she doesn’t want to dwell on the past.  

I overcame addiction,” she added. “I overcame homelessness.”

While living at a shelter, Wiscombe heard about opportunities in construction work and found her way to a training program — Blue Door’s Construct — where she learned how to use power tools safely and got other hands-on carpentry training. She also got in-classroom instruction for such things as construction math.

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“I built a picnic table and a Muskoka chair,” she said proudly. “And I built a birdhouse, a house for my cat, and a lot of cool stuff.”

Construct, Wiscombe stated, “Gave me a life.”

Armed with her new skills and the resume they taught her how to write, Wiscombe went looking for work and found an employer — Royal Oak Railing and Stair — willing to take a chance on a rookie.

Wiscombe, who is bright and engaging, has a tremendous work ethic and has proven to be an excellent employee.

“Sometimes I look at the work I do and think, ‘I made a piece of rough lumber look like this?’ It’s amazing!

“I love this place,” she said of Royal Oak. “I want to stay here a long time.”

She is proud of herself, and rightfully so.

“I didn’t know where I was going in life. When you grow up in group homes or homeless shelters, you don’t have a good head on your shoulders.

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“But this program gave me everything.”

Blue Door is a shelter in York Region and its construction program is an employment social enterprise that offers a helping hand into the building trades.

Katie Bea, training coordinator at Construct, described the eight-week program and the individual help provided to each student. The program is backed up by community and employment supports and is a direct aid to ending homelessness, said Bea, because it leads to career paths, affordable housing, independence, and a way out of poverty.

“We are proactive, not reactive — that’s where I get job satisfaction,” said Bea.

Construct is one of 10 community partners across the country chosen by The Home Depot Canada Foundation for its TradeWorx program.

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Starting with an initial $1-million investment, TradeWorx and those community partners will provide training for 100 Canadian youth experiencing homelessness or barriers to employment.

Like Wiscombe, these kids will get the necessary training and guidance to find work in the skilled trades — much in demand in the construction industry right now.

TradeWorx operates by the “teach a man to fish” philosophy: The Home Depot Canada Foundation has invested more than $42 million in research, housing, and life skills development programs aimed at preventing and ending youth homelessness. 

“TradeWorx builds upon our work with community partners that provide emergency housing and social supports for youth, by connecting them with the training needed to establish lasting careers and acquire stable housing,” said Pamela O’Rourke, board chair of The Home Depot Canada Foundation.

Wiscombe, thrilled with her job and the apartment she shares with her fiance and their pets, is living proof of how well these programs can work. 

“I succeeded. I achieved. One day, maybe, I’ll own my own shop!” said Wiscombe.

“I had nothing,” she added. “I want to emphasize how much I have overcome in my life and how far I’ve come, and how proud I am of myself.”

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