Rehabbing vacant homes benefits Franklinton and gives local volunteers a valuable education for future work.

A lot of rebuilding is happening in Franklinton. Some of it is occurring at abandoned properties around the neighborhood west of Downtown. But much of it is happening in the classroom, where professionals associated with the nonprofit Franklinton Rising are providing at-risk students and young adults the chance to lay a foundation for a better life.

The faith-based organization, started in 2015 by a group of local professionals who wanted to make a difference in the neighborhood, teaches young people basic construction skills and important life skills that will help them find a path out of poverty.

Making sure that the program addresses both pieces is critically important to its success, says President Tom Heffner. Many participants have never had anyone in their lives who modeled responsibility or valued work, he says.

“We're changing hearts, changing perspectives,” Heffner says. “Some of them never had anyone to teach them right from wrong. They were taught, ‘Do what you have to to get by.'”

The program takes a holistic approach to its participants and the neighborhood. That's quite unique in the nonprofit world, says Steve Wathen, CEO of Equity, a Hilliard development and construction firm. He's one of Franklinton Rising's founding board members. “There wasn't an existing organization in our strike zone,” he says.

In addition to offering participants the opportunity to change their lives, Franklinton Rising also seeks to transform the neighborhood. Students gain building skills by rehabbing vacant homes that have been purchased by or donated to the nonprofit. The houses are completely gutted and outfitted with whatever is necessary to make them like new. Wathen says it is hoped the rehab effort will boost neighborhood pride and be an impetus for revitalization.

But Franklinton Rising's goals are loftier still. Leaders want to see its graduates find quality jobs that will allow them to rent—and eventually buy—the renovated homes.

It would truly be life-changing for one of the organization's students to be able to call one of the rehabbed projects home, Wathen says. It might be the nicest place the graduate has ever lived, but more important would be the positive impact on one's psyche.

“If you give someone self-esteem, it's hard for them to lose that,” he says.

Students who come out of the program with basic construction skills and a desire to work hard will have no trouble finding gainful employment, Wathen says. The construction industry needs workers, and Heffner says graduates will be coached to find positions that offer job growth and careers, not just a paycheck.

The program currently serves nine trainees, five of whom are in high school. It has no set length or entry requirements, Heffner says. It's about building relationships with participants and helping them see the value of the work and life lessons.

“We want to make the door as wide open as possible,” Heffner says. “It completely depends upon the individual and how we assess their readiness in terms of life skills and job skills.”

Three trainees—the first graduates—will be ready to start job-hunting this summer. Trainees work under a Franklinton Rising employee who has a construction background.

The organization also enlists local trades professionals to work with students. When companies are hired to work on properties, the expectation is that they will allow students to shadow their workers—and that they will offer a hefty discount, Heffner says. Many have stepped up.

It's a comfortable place to learn, says DeVille Morrow, 25.

“This is a place where you can make mistakes or ask questions if you get stuck,” he says.

Jamal Ali likes that the program provides the chance to talk about life and coping with stress. It's beneficial, the 16-year-old says. “They help with your personal life. Not just work,” he says. “The whole program is like a family.”

Melissa Kossler Dutton is a freelance writer.