Criminal Justice

Gary Building Project Also Rehabs Lives

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By: Hilary Powell

August 29, 2014 — A man with a hammer in Gary, Ind. is doing the work inspired by the singer of the song, “Man in the Mirror.”

“It’s been awesome for me,” says Victor Thomas, a volunteer building homes in Gary. “Being in a closed environment to finally get out doing some pro-social lifestyle stuff, you know, it’s been awesome.”

Thomas, 54, is part of a work crew using a festival this week in musician Michael Jackson’s hometown of Gary to help rehab four homes. It’s a joint project between Gary City Hall and the Fuller Center for Housing.

“They have helped us over the past three weeks actually,” says Phyllis Barlow, project coordinator for the Gary Fuller Center Project. “They’ve worked on the sites gutting out the homes we’re rehabbing.”

The homes sit on a famous street: steps from 2300 Jackson Street, Michael Jackson’s childhood home. The effort drew the attention of Indiana governor Mike Pence, who toured the site.

“People coming in from all over the state of Indiana and all over the country to really restore what is one of the most famous streets in America,” Pence says.

Volunteers, including Gary mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.

“I put in some time, too,” she says. “I learned to lay siding.”

She and other volunteers nailed, drilled, and patched the frame of the homes in a week-long blitz build.

“A blitz build is let’s get it done in a week to show the commitment,” Barlow says. “You don’t have to be professionally skilled but you know just have a willing heart.” It’s a skill Thomas says he’s got. It’s his first time being on a home construction crew — a dream he couldn’t achieve within the past decade.

He’s spent the last 10 years not behind walls, but bars but serving time in Indiana’s Pendleton Correctional Facility for a felony.

“Being in prison, you do have to learn how to rethink and live a different way after living so long in an anti-social world,” he says. “After they told me about helping someone build a house for them, then it got to a personal aspect of it.”

Thomas is one of a dozen minimum security inmates from the department of corrections working to flip the properties.

He and other inmates also raised $53,000 dollars for the project. Officials say it’s the largest single donation ever collected by the DOC.

“Not only have they raised the money, they put in sweat equity,” Freeman Wilson says. “Them contributing to the community I think is one of the clear signs that they are on the road to rehabilitation.”

Program officials say long after this build is complete and the tools put away, they hope the workers will learn life lessons that will remain with them in the future.

“They’re picking up skills, and at least one of them was a professional roofer beforehand,” says David Liebel, volunteer services director at the Indiana Department of Corrections. “Others have had light carpenter skills. Others are really learning on the job.”

Thomas has three years left to serve on his sentence, and he says the work is welcome experience.

“I wanted to familiarize myself into working back into society,” Thomas says. “When I share this with my family, it is awesome not only for me but for them also seeing this. One day I can bring my kids back and show them what I did.”

“The income that they’ve generated is, is going to go to making this street of dreams what it once was,” Pence says.

Freeman Wilson says the privately funded project is helping to create a more appealing Steel City, but this is a rehab project where perhaps the most change is internal.

“Hopefully this will impact others to step up and do these kind of things,” Thomas says.

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