Al Gaines wants to get young people off the streets and into the work force.
“I’ve had this vision for a while,” he said.
Using Cottage Grove as a base, Gaines hopes to establish the Solid Rock Skill Center, a facility which will equip troubled youth in Lane County with trade skills and set them on a path for success.
Cottage Grove isn’t ground zero for the project, however. Gaines made his first attempt when he was living in Springfield, hoping to make an impact on the ongoing problem of homelessness in the area.
“There are 1,500 kids just in Eugene that are homeless,” he said. “And they’re just surviving day to day.”
A count of the homeless in Lane County this January tallied a rise of 32 percent from the previous year, according to Lane County Human Services.
Providing young people with skills, Gaines felt, could redirect their trajectory off the streets.
“If these kids wanted to get off the street and learn a trade, they could get on with their lives,” he said.
The project began when Gaines was contacted by the city managers of Eugene and Springfield to work on solutions to the homeless issue. As a journeyman welder/fabricator, design engineer and having experience in process control systems, Gaines was hopeful his own skills could be passed on to trainable youth.
With the help of other instructors, Gaines envisioned a skill center which would teach a variety of trades such as welding, mechanics and woodworking.
“We could do all kinds of stuff with these kids if they want to learn something,” he said.
Gaines secured a building on Franklin Blvd. in the Glenwood area and spent about a year building the center. Backed by a team of volunteers and supported by local fundraisers, Gaines had set up two shops and eight classrooms.
“We spent quite a few thousand dollars on the place,” said Gaines. “We were getting really close to opening.”
Then the monkey wrench dropped.
“The mayor texted me and said that I needed to do this trade school skill center somewhere else,” Gaines said. “It angered me. I did all that work.”
The news came as a shock and Gaines chalked it up to the cold flow of bureaucracy.
“Springfield changed all the building codes in that area and we couldn’t do anything – we couldn’t use the building at all,” he said. “They had plans for Glenwood and we weren’t part of their plans.”
Despite the setback, Gaines had resolved to see the project through. One year ago, he sold his house in Springfield and moved to Cottage Grove with the intention to reboot his skill center on his own property.
Again, however, Gaines ran into another hurdle. The proposed skill center would be constructed under the aegis of the nonprofit Lane County Youth for Christ and would raise his own property value. As such, Gaines was told he couldn’t construct there either.
With the little money left over from his previous project, Gaines has begun searching for a building that could house and train area youth. Lately, he’s had his eye on Latham School as a venue, starting with a small group of 10.
“What I’d like to do is teach a few kids some skills and then have them help in training the next group,” he said. “We want to bring them in and house them and teach them the skill. And we’d have to have a controlled environment to do that.”
Touching the lives of disaffected youth is hardly a new project for Gaines.
“I’ve been dealing with these kids for the last 31 years as a chaplain at the detention center,” he said. “I’ve helped a lot of kids get turned around.”
Gaines works at the John Serbu Juvenile Justice Center in Eugene, a facility which helps troubled teens integrate back into society.
His own experience as an abused child and drug user for 15 years, he says, is an accessible contact point for the youth he treats.
“And I’ve turned my life around. And now I’m giving back,” he said. “I’ve dedicated my life to working with these kids. And so that breaks open the door for me to be able to speak into their lives because they connect with me.”
Gaines recalled his own trust issues and hang-ups as a youth and what it would have taken to set him straight.
“A lot of these kids are used and abused and have never had a chance,” he said. “They’re just surviving and I want them to get on with their lives. … They’re no throw-away kids. They’re just dealt a bad hand. A lot of times these kids are being turned on to meth and all kinds of drugs by their own parents, which is really sad. So I just want to give them a chance.”
If Gaines’ skill center project gets off the ground, he’s hoping to implement it countywide.
“It’d be nice to get the kids out of their environment,” he said. “If we can get them away, bring them up from Eugene into Cottage Grove, train them, and then we can try to find them jobs, set them up with school and clothes and try to help them have a start.”
As the Juvenile Justice Ministry Director with Youth for Christ, Gaines also couches his counsel to youths in Christian doctrine.
“We share the Gospel also,” he said. “It wouldn’t depend on their being trained, but I want to speak into their lives about a different direction with their life.”
The proposed program would be aimed at youth under 21 and focus on short courses that could set them up for their next step in life.
“We’re talking about weeks,” said Gaines. “It’ll probably give them just enough skill to get an apprenticeship job.”
Considering the inherent pitfalls of dealing with troubled youth, Gaines is also aware that certain precautions will have to be taken.
“It’s going to be a secured setup,” he said. “The kid has to be willing on his own accord to stay there and not run off. If they run off, they’re out of the program.”
In addition, the skill center would operate free of charge for attending youth.
“If they want to learn a trade, if they want to get off the street and they want to get on with their life, it’d be no charge,” said Gaines.
To see the project take root, Gaines is also relying on a community of skilled volunteers who will be able to donate services to the center.
“I’m going to find people that are willing to teach these kids a skill. I can’t teach everything. I can teach some,” he said. “Most of these kids haven’t had a chance. And they just have to realize that somebody cares about them and they’re not out to take advantage of them.”
More information about Lane County Youth for Christ can be found at www.lanecounty.yfc.net.