by Jacklin Bolduan
Operation Fresh Start (OFS) executive director Greg Markle said, “It’s all about what’s next” when it comes to one of Madison’s longest-running community employment, education, and training organizations. Located on Winnebago street on Madison’s near-East side, OFS has been in the business of empowering Madison’s youth for 45 years.
Markle described their programming as “providing disconnected youth a path to self-sufficiency.” OFS targets young people aged 16- 24 who are in a transitional period of their lives. Some have dropped out or are at risk of not graduating high school while others have graduated but need help determining where to go next. Markle says 75 percent of them identify as people of color and most all come from difficult family situations and/or low income households.
OFS’ current set of programming attempts to meet the needs of young people at many different points of transition. Its core program, Pathways, allows students to move through a set of curriculum that leads to a high school diploma while gaining employment experience and income. Participants are with the program 32 hours per week and their time is split up between working, studying, and career development. During workdays, participants help to build low-income housing or remove invasive species around Madison and are paid for their work to help with living costs while they earn their diplomas. Upon completion of the Pathways program, about 78 percent of participants continue working with OFS to begin post-secondary education or explore a variety of career tracks.
OFS’ newest optional career track, the Pathways Healthcare Track, is one Markle hopes will be equally successful. The organization has been working to foster partnerships with local healthcare employers and nursing programs to give students the opportunity to form careers in the healthcare field. Markle says the organization will provide students with essential financial and academic support that they may otherwise not have access to.
“You can start out with a CNA, get some basic credentials, get a good self-sufficient job paying 13 to 16 dollars an hour, which is pretty decent. And from there you can take the next step in education to go into other fields like surgical tech or x-ray lab tech.”
Through employer partnerships, students can maintain a part time job while they go through the CNA program, gaining valuable experience in the field. In addition, they can receive education awards that cover the cost of the CNA program itself. OFS staff and volunteers provide homework assistance and help with registering for classes and navigating educational systems.
Markle says communities often make the mistake of focusing only on access to post-secondary education, leaving students without the resources and support to actually succeed in furthering that education.
“They need something where they can move towards income right away and still have that opportunity to build a career beyond that… Middle class and upper class people go to college and have a whole lot of support in that setting and lower income people don’t. And that’s where the disparity really starts,” Markle said.
Two of OFS’ participants, Giselle Muñoz, 18, and Dominique Sanders, 23, will be part of the organization’s new healthcare track. They spoke about what kind of changes this opportunity has brought to their lives.
As a high school student, Muñoz moved back and forth between Wisconsin and Texas, which made it difficult to maintain a consistent understanding of course material and she soon fell behind.
“I started seeing all of my older friends start to graduate and I was pretty upset.”
Here in Madison, she stopped attending school and began working full time. She grew tired of just going back and forth to work and wanted the opportunity to finish her high school diploma. She decided to get in touch with a counselor at LaFollette High School who recommended that she look into Operation Fresh Start. As a current participant, she says she likes the new experiences and support the organization provides.
“I like trying new things so building houses and doing conservation every once in awhile is pretty exciting. OFS has also motivated me to get my driver’s license. They’re doing a lot for me so far. They don’t let you go through things alone.”
Muñoz hopes to complete her CNA and eventually become a surgical technician through the program.
“I find it really shocking that we actually get paid to get our diploma. It’s pretty awesome.”
Dominique Sanders came to the program when she moved from Chicago and decided she was tired of sitting at home when she became unemployed. Sanders was receiving government assistance and raising a young daughter. She heard about the program through a friend of her brother’s.
“It just got to the point where I was just tired of sitting around not doing nothing. I had gotten real comfortable with just sitting around…I realized, you know, I got a daughter. This is getting serious. And it’s hard trying to pay rent and everything.”
Sanders hopes to begin the healthcare track in about a month and a half, after she receives her diploma, and eventually get her RNA. Once she completes the program she plans on taking additional classes at Madison College.
“I feel like if we can do this construction maybe we can do anything.”
Sanders says that this is the only program of its kind that she’s been able to stick with. And she knows her achievements have already affected how she will prioritize education in her daughter’s life.
“I’m proud of myself for that.”
Markle says that Sanders and Muñoz are successful because they’re committed to moving forward.
“Really what we’re looking for is that young person’s dedication to change, that they want to make some significant changes from where they are, they really want to move forward, that they have in mind some career goals.” In terms of outcomes, it seems that the combination of work experience, consistent income, financial support, and career guidance is the recipe for success.
“It works. About 78% of our young people go on to post-secondary education or employment. We’re actually sort of a national model for programs like ours. The non-measurable outcome you see is that young person who comes in here with their head down, thinking that they’re a failure, and by the time they leave here, their head is up, they’ll have a conversation with you face to face, and they think that they can succeed.”
Greg Markle has been OFS’s executive director for four years. When asked why he does this work, he says it’s all about the young people.
“I’m just empowered by what young people are willing to do. And people in our community often get a bad rap. And some do sometimes foolish and wrong things, and that tends to get in the press. So I get to come here and meet young people who are really trying to do the right thing. And they might not have all the answers of what the right thing is when they get here but they’re really trying and showing up and making that effort and they end up doing the right thing and it’s really impressive.”
The organization was originally founded by a Madison police officer who found himself making connections with youth who lacked direction and resources. He decided to gather a small group of investors to purchase an ailing home on the East side. He employed these same young people to renovate the home and saw them making strides in their academic and personal lives. The realization that this type of structure fostered confidence-building, self-sufficiency, and inter-generational mentorship remains the foundation on which Operation Fresh Start functions today.
Operation Fresh Start is seeking new participants for their healthcare track and is encouraging young people to apply. If you or someone you know might be interested in getting your education paid for while gaining valuable work experience in the healthcare field, give OFS a call at (608)-244-4721. You can also find more information online at www.operationfreshstart.org.