shadow
Ordinary people taking action for extraordinary change.

In a distressed part of Ohio, one way people are finding work – and purpose

Why We Wrote This

The opioid crisis has been a stark challenge for many US communities. In Youngstown, the nonprofit Flying High is taking a notable approach that addresses a number of issues, including the need for job training.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Jay Hymes (r.), who took Flying High’s welding class and is now an instructor for the nonprofit, works with a student trying to load a wire. He loves that people are depending on him now.

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The population of Youngstown, Ohio, has shrunk dramatically since its steel mills shut down in the 1970s. It now ranks as the most economically distressed city of its size in the United States. And the opioid crisis is acute here. But Jeffrey Magada is one person who is trying to give some residents a renewed sense of purpose – and a job. He founded the nonprofit Flying High, which in 2016 expanded its operations thanks to a $4 million grant from the US Department of Labor. Flying High offers a 15-week welding class in addition to job training programs in nursing and chemical dependency counseling – as well as sober living and supplemental activities, including a “purpose” class. Of those who started training, 89 percent have completed it, and of those who completed training, 8 in 10 are currently employed. One of these people is Mike Oates, who has a job at Columbiana Boiler Co. Mr. Magada is “actually making a difference in Youngstown,” says the recent Flying High graduate. “There’s a very dark shadow over that city, and he’s a shining light in it.”

Mike Oates’s life was tracing the same downward trajectory of so many ensnared in the opioid crisis. Then it dramatically changed course for the better.

As Mr. Oates tells it, he hurt his back in a steel mill and got addicted to the opioids he was prescribed. A felonious assault charge landed him in prison, where he underwent a major transformation.

“What a lot of people don’t understand is when you get addicted, you’re searching for something,” Oates says.

One person who does understand that is Jeffrey Magada, a Youngstown, Ohio, native who says he, too, could have ended up on the wrong track if he hadn’t turned his life over to God. So he founded Flying High, a nonprofit that helps individuals find renewed purpose – and a job.

“He’s actually making a difference in Youngstown,” says Oates, who graduated from Flying High’s inaugural welding class in January and now has a job at Columbiana Boiler Co. half an hour away. “There’s a very dark shadow over that city, and he’s a shining light in it.”

Youngstown, whose population has shrunk dramatically since its steel mills shut down in the 1970s, ranks as the most economically distressed city of its size in the United States. In the neighborhood where Flying High offers its welding classes, the median price for a home is $26,593.

The nonprofit, which started in 1994, expanded its operations in 2016 thanks to a $4 million grant from the US Department of Labor. It now offers a 15-week welding class in addition to job training programs in nursing and chemical dependency counseling – as well as sober living and supplemental activities, including a “purpose” class.

Mr. Magada says the program’s holistic approach sets it apart from initiatives that tackle a single challenge, such as alcohol dependency, independent of related issues like lack of job skills. Nearly 300 participants have enrolled over the past two years. Of those who started training, 89 percent have completed it, and of those who completed training, 8 in 10 are currently employed.

“Where our program is unique, is it helps them bridge that gap,” Magada says. “Our mission has always been to develop potential and to help people discover their destiny.”

No more scraping by

Jay Hymes, who lived in this neighborhood during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and early ’90s, has been shot multiple times and incarcerated twice.

When he got out in 2006, he scraped together a living – cutting hair, cutting grass, whatever work he could find – until he found Magada’s nonprofit.

“Sometimes people just need a little extra help, and that’s what Flying High does,” says Mr. Hymes, who graduated with Oates in January. “This was my first time ever graduating from anything.”

Flying High then asked Hymes to come on as a welding instructor, a job he loves.

“People are depending on me to do something positive,” he says during a break from training a class. “My whole family ... [is] ecstatic that I’m a teacher now.”

One of his students is Rontrell White, who met Magada as a child. His mother was receiving food assistance. Determined to make it on his own, he got involved with a gang and began selling drugs.

Seeing them soar

“[Magada] could have given up many, many years ago,” says Mr. White, who was sentenced to three years in prison for involuntary manslaughter and recently got out of prison.

As trainees like White reach the midpoint of their courses, Flying High’s job developer, Dave Knickerbocker, starts helping them look for work. He has built a coalition of more than a dozen local employers who will consider applicants from the training programs.

The nonprofit pays a portion of its graduates’ salaries for the first six months and visits them on the job at least monthly to ensure that the arrangement is fruitful for both employer and employee.

“You get the right fit, and it’s just great to see them soar,” Mr. Knickerbocker says.

Michael Sherwin, Columbiana Boiler’s chief executive officer, says Oates has been “a great find.” The former steelworker gets up at 4:30 a.m. to put in 10-hour shifts and regain financial stability. But he has a higher vision for his life, thanks to what he describes as the transforming power of God’s love.

“My purpose in going to prison was to get right with Him,” he says. “Now my purpose is to help everyone I can.”

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