Toolbox4Life program aims, with on-the-job experience, to change lives

ORLANDO, Fla. – If you head to a neighborhood off Ivey Lane on Tuesdays and Thursdays, you'll hear hammers, saws, drills -- you name it -- the sounds of work being done.

It's all because an Orlando-area organization called Toolbox4Life has three hardworking students getting on-the-job experience rehabbing neighborhood homes in partnership with Habitat for Humanity.

"It's fun because you get to meet other people, you know, in different communities, fixing peoples'stuff," said student Calvin Batie. "You never know who you might meet. I might meet a guy and he might hire me the next day, so it's very positive. That's why I like it." "It's always a good opportunity to work with other people you don't know because you learn more about yourself as you go along," said student Melvin Drumwright Jr.

It's not just a chance to improve the community, it's one way Toolbox4Life is working to help these students change their lives.

"This is like a win-win-win," said assistant crew leader Mike Knox.

"This is a pilot project for the first year, so we wanted to have three to six students per class," said Toolbox4Life co-founder John Hursh.

Hursh and his wife, Jane, started the program as part of their 306 Foundation to help people in difficult circumstances better their lives.

"We really believe that everyone has great assets," said John Hursh. "We saw all these underlying issues related to the men and women who were trafficked, whether for sex or labor, that surfaced,and we wanted to not just help them get out of that, but then (asked). 'Where do they go from there and how do we involve the whole community in that?' We have men and women coming out of everything from domestic abuse, obviously usually women, human trafficking, addiction behaviors, mental health issues, maybe been incarcerated and maybe homeless. Life can be really hard for our students, so it's not just getting employed, it's staying employed. So, we try to provide them with the skill set along with the life skills, social skills, health and wellness -- skills that are going to help them be successful in a job and move to a career, not just move job to job."

There are two programs Toolbox4Life currently has: the culinary program, which promotes skills necessary in a commercial kitchen, and the newer construction course.

Jane Hursh said that Tuesdays and Thursdays are the field work days, but on Wednesdays, volunteers from the community come in to help students learn about everything from interview etiquette to how to dress.

"The reality is that Toolbox4Life is about approaching the person holistically," said Jane Hursh. "The infrastructure is really geared toward building from the inside out."

"If you have good construction skills, but you don't know how to interview or put yourself out there, perhaps that's a key part that's going to keep you from that job," said Knox.

Some of the topics covered and exercises the training sessions focus on are anger management, reframing of situations, healthy decision making and lifestyle, grief and loss, forgiveness, restoration of dignity, inner child, conflict resolution and building a support network.

For culinary program graduate Lisa Hitter, those are the sessions that she most loved. When Hitter came to Toolbox4Life, she was just getting back on her feet after suffering from addiction and being homeless.

"I chose addiction over everything, and little by little, I lost everything I had and I ended up homeless," said Hitter.

She said when she started, she was very hopeful for what was to come, but couldn't have imagined the effect it would have on her -- especially the life skills portions of the course.

"You know, when I grew up, my mom was always worried about money, thinking college is expensive, (saying,) 'You don't want to waste your money, not everyone's for school,'" said Hitter. "And I was like, 'I'm not smart enough to go to school.' And I believed that lie for 10 years after graduating high school."

It wasn't until hearing the testimony of other women who had doubted themselves and overcame their adversity to own their own businesses that Hitter said she realized there was much more in store for her -- and made the decision to go to college.

"And then I was like, 'You know, I can do anything,'" said Hitter. "Because if we wake up and we make that choice that we can do it, we can do it. And I had an A average last semester and I have an A average now. I believed those lies for so long and look, I'm doing great. But I think now it means more because I want it."

Hitter wants it because she wants a better life for herself and her 11-year-old son, Alex.

"He's my why: If I didn't have him, I would probably be dead," she said.

But just 10 months after graduation, everything has turned around.

"I obtained employment, I started college, I got my driver's license back, I got a car, I am in my own apartment, I spend more than 50 percent of my time with my son, my relationship with my family has gotten better," said Hitter. "It's just crazy, we dwell on that one minute of. 'I want everything to be fixed right now,' but if we are patient, that's a lot of stuff, that's a lot."


That's exactly what Hursh said it's all about.


"One of our core principles is people aren't projects and everybody is on their own timeline," said Hursh. "We are trying to give people the opportunity to hear some things they've maybe never heard before, they've never been validated, they've never been approved of, appreciated, told the truth about who they really (are?). So, we just hope to relight a pilot light, so to speak, or maybe one that's not been lit and see where this goes."

For the guys currently in the construction course, they've already got their heads in the game.

"I always stayed closed up, with me being around different people, it kind of made me open up, opened up my horizons," said Batie. "It motivates me to want to have my own company."

"Stay focused, always be the terms of what you want to do in life and stay open to more opportunities and whatever comes your way, take the opportunity," said Drumwright. "If you guys don't know it, y’all need to try it. It's worth a shot."

Hitter said her goal is to one day own her own bakery, and she said with hard work and positive thinking, it will happen.

If you believe that you can do it, you're going to do it, you're the only one who can controlyour destiny," said Hitter. "You have to work towards that and that positivity, like as long as you're positive about a situation, it's almost always going to work out."

Toolbox4Life classes are free, provided by donations to the 306 Foundation.

The organization is holding its third annual Taste4Toolbox event March 8  from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Winter Park Civic Center. Food and beverages will be provided by several local restaurants and vendors. Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, will be the guest speaker. To purchase tickets, click here.

About the Author:

Tara Evans is an executive producer and has been with News 6 since January 2013. She currently spearheads News 6 at Nine and specializes in stories with messages of inspiration, hope and that make a difference for people -- with a few hard-hitting investigations thrown in from time to time.