Youth with troubled backgrounds received solar energy training

SPRINGFIELD-One way to overcome racial injustices and disparities is by preparing Black youth for financial and career success, according to NAACP president Teresa Haley.

That's why Haley jumped at an opportunity to use a $5,000 Healing Illinois grant from United Way of Central Illinois to bring a four-week solar training program to her students this spring.

"Our kids want more, and they deserve more," Haley said. "And the best way to give them more is to not give them things but to show them what success looks like, to show them that they're capable, that they're smart, that they can have the American dream and that they can accomplish anything that they set their minds to."

Haley decided to introduce students in the NAACP's Back-to-School/Stay-in-School Academy to practical training and education and thinking about lucrative careers that don't necessarily require a college degree.

The academy, more than 25 years old, is a nine-month alternative educational program for youth with troubled backgrounds.Students, most of whom are Black and live in low-income households, can earn their high school diplomas in the academy.

Because Springfield has experienced a high number of shootings this year, including a recent one that killed an academy student, the solar training program provided youth an on-time escape from some of their current realities and showed them other possibilities, Haley said.

Ten students ages 16-18 completed the solar training program, thanks to the Healing Illinois grant, which was funded by the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) to promote racial healing in Illinois. In April, the students received certificates showing that they have a basic understanding of solar panel installation.

Calvin Pitts, an independent veteran journeyman electrician, was the program's volunteer instructor. Pitts is owner of B.O.N.E., LLC, a construction, development and investment company, and Southtown Construction Training Center, a construction trade school.

Twice a week through Zoom and in-person classroom instruction, Pitts taught lessons on such topics as voltage conversion, raceway installments and DC connectors. Students learned math calculations and practiced installing solar panels on walls inside of buildings. They learned about solar, construction and electrical careers. They also got training on conflict and stress management and had discussions on racial disparities and diversity.

"I like to see the kids' eyes light up as we share information," Pitts said. For the youth who may not be interested in college, Pitts knew that the lucrative careers he exposed them to gave them new inspiration and hope about future career possibilities. For example, solar panel installers can make anywhere from $40,000 to $75,000 a year, Pitts said.

"I know personally, for me, I wasn't college material, but I also know that I probably make as much or more than a lot of college graduates as an electrician with IBEW. So I just want to share that information," Pitt said. "They can take this material and literally not only make money locally where they are now, but they can take this trade and they can be assets anywhere that they decide to go."

That's exactly the kind of success story and information Haley wanted her academy students to hear. "Finding something that they can participate in and learn and grow, and they can make money and a possible career out of it is why I chose the solar program," Haley said.

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