The sounds of hammers, electric drills and quiet conversation filled the air as a group of about half a dozen teenagers worked away in a small basement workshop on a quiet street in Stamford Tuesday. In one corner, three young men were working on building an Adirondack chair, entirely from scratch. In another, the group’s resident artist sat quietly at a massive, handmade sandwich board, sketching out a sign promoting the East Side Holiday Tree Lighting next week.
This hive of activity is the Trafigura Work & Learn Program at nonprofit group Domus. A few days a week, groups of a half dozen or so come to the workshop to learn life skills that will help them get and keep jobs.
The engine behind this program is powered by two exceptional individuals: Director Mitch DePino and Business Manager Mario Sarro. Mitch and Mario run the workshop like a well-oiled machine, keeping it clean, safe and friendly. The pair, and volunteers, teach participants valuable skills like small engine repair, bike repair and woodworking. They have also provided instruction in proper nutrition, safe food preparation and culinary arts.
The program is a collaboration among Domus, the Trafigura Foundation and the Work Place, Inc. Since the Fall of 2010, the program has been working primarily with at-risk Stamford youth ages 16 to 25 referred from a number of programs like Domus Group Homes, Stamford Academy, Project Hope Street Outreach and the Juvenile Review Board. To date, more than 100 kids have gone through the doors at Work & Learn.
One of the projects the teens are tackling this week is a festive one: pinecone fire starters. The group collected pinecones from underneath a giant pine tree in front of Domus, purchased wick, wax and inexpensive gift bags. The fire starters will be produced, packaged and given as holiday gifts this year. Sarro says all of these projects are effective ways to teach the students about the power of business and entrepreneurship, even showing them the competition online.
DePino says the program is an effective way to teach practical skills but also some more intangible life lessons like respect, self-worth and professionalism. DePino says the students aren’t the only ones who learn lessons.
“We’ve seen our volunteers be just as impacted as our participants,” says DePino. “The more volunteers and new faces we have come through our doors with varied skills and expertise, the better an education we can give to our participants. That’s a beautiful thing.”
Sarro echoed DePino’s comments and says they’re always looking for some extra hands. He says some people can be intimidated by the prospect of volunteering but everyone can offer something.
“We have volunteers helping us in the workshop of course but we also have opportunities for volunteers to work with the youth on mock interviews, public speaking and other professional skills. Volunteers are an essential part of our mission and anything that someone can offer to help further the life of a youth is a gift.”
According to Work & Learn, 100% of the program’s participants say they want to attend college and 87% say they now have a specific desired career track. To learn more about the program, visit their website: http://www.domuskids.org/Trafigura.html
If you’d like to get involved with Domus and Work & Learn, visit Fairfield-County based www.VolunteerSquare.com for a variety of volunteer opportunities.