For young men struggling to gain foothold, search for career brings hope, heartache
The morning of his final internship evaluation, Adonis Clayborn woke up in his girlfriend's car. Unable to afford a motel room, he had reclined the driver's seat, covered himself in sweaters he kept in the trunk and slept the night in the silver Nissan Sentra with the Hello Kitty license plate frame. Still, the soft-spoken 22-year-old showed up to work on time, wearing a pink tie given to him by a colleague.
Clayborn was nearing the end of his eight-week internship at Skolnik Industries, a manufacturer near Midway Airport that makes steel drums, and would soon learn if he would be offered a job.
As Clayborn sat in a conference room that May afternoon, his long springy hair piled into a high ponytail, the internship organizers asked how he enjoyed working there.
"I love it," Clayborn said firmly. "They actually want you to succeed."
For a long time, Clayborn fit a statistic that has raised alarms as violence soars in the city, mostly in the poor and highly segregated black neighborhoods that make up much of Chicago's South and West sides: Nearly half of the city's 20- to 24-year-old black men are neither working nor in school, according to 2014 data analyzed by the Great Cities Institute.
Programs that link "disconnected" youth to employers are putting young men like Clayborn on career paths they might not have considered, at companies that might otherwise not have considered them.
The road isn't always smooth. But despite some heartache, employers like Skolnik say it's one worth taking.
"Adonis has really opened a lot of eyes around here," said Dean Ricker, vice president of sales at Skolnik.
Taking a chance on a program
Ricker wasn't sure what to expect when he got a cold call last year asking if Skolnik would host an intern from the Manufacturing Careers Internship Program.
The initiative puts 18- to 24-year-olds through a four-week boot camp to develop professional skills, and then an eight-week paid internship at a local manufacturer. The interns' $9 hourly wage is paid by the program.
Launched in Arlington Heights in 2011 and expanded to the city two years ago, the program has gotten the attention of workforce officials.
"These are the young folks that we see on the streets," said Ray Bentley, chief community officer at the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, which pledged nearly $700,000 in federal workforce funds to the internship program this year and hopes to expand it to other communities. "We believe that this program has teeth."
Ricker agreed to have the interns tour the facility, and was so impressed by the group of sharply dressed young people that the company signed up to host an intern as well. When Clayborn showed up his first day, without a lick of manufacturing experience, Ricker decided to rotate him through different departments, set the bar high and see where his talents lie.
A new opportunity
Clayborn said he didn't have much interest in academics while attending Kenwood Academy High School. He spent much of his time smoking marijuana with friends.
He began dealing drugs in Chicago and Wisconsin. He pleaded guilty in 2011 in Wisconsin to a misdemeanor charge for possession of drug paraphernalia.
He and his mother clashed, Clayborn said, and he often ran away from home or got kicked out.
He dropped out of school. Eventually he found himself sleeping on the streets with a friend.
Clayborn got a landscaping job through a homeless shelter where he was staying, but he was frustrated with his $8.25 hourly wage.
When a mentor at ASN Preparatory Institute, the alternative school he began attending, told him about the internship, he signed up.
Clayborn said he was tired of letting his mother down, and "tired of fast money going away fast."
Motivation from a friend
Clayborn doubts he would have made it through the program's boot camp without his friend Phillip Brown, another student at ASN Prep who signed up for it. They motivated each other, and let go of friends from their drug-doing days.
Brown, 20, was placed in an internship at MetraFlex, a manufacturer in the West Town neighborhood that makes commercial HVAC products.
Exhausted after long days cutting and wrapping pipes, "I don't have time for the crime life," Brown said one afternoon after work, his plastic safety goggles still perched on his head.
With two small sons, aged 3 and 1, Brown also is trying to be someone they can look up to.
Brown was 11 when his mom died, leaving behind eight children. His dad skipped town two years later. The kids split up among relatives and Brown went to live with his older sister, who was 27 at the time and living on her own in public housing in the Lincoln Park neighborhood.
Fighting got him kicked out of Lincoln Park High School. Brown joined an alternative school to get his GED, but he didn't take it seriously, "didn't have faith in myself."
He worked for a while doing bike deliveries for a sandwich shop, then got a job at Jewel stocking fruits and vegetables. Three weeks in, Brown got into a fight on the street and was stabbed in his torso.
"It made me want to do better and stop taking life for granted," said Brown, who was hospitalized for two weeks and has a scar that runs from his sternum to his belly button.
He went back to ASN Prep and passed three of the four GED tests in two weeks. Long good with his hands, he eagerly signed up for the manufacturing internship.
A different journey
Not everyone who finds themselves unmoored from work or school got there via a checkered past.
Antonio Sylvertooth, 25, played by the rules, thanks in no small part to his grandmother.
Sylvertooth, who still lives in the tidy Chatham neighborhood house where his grandparents raised him, was about 12 years old when he walked into the dining room and saw a packed suitcase. He asked his grandmother where she was going. She said he was the one going, to a boarding school in the south suburbs.
Sylvertooth, whose mother was too ill to care for him and whose father was in and out of jail, recalls that he was a "rude, angry kid." That changed once he started attending Glenwood Academy, where he stopped fighting, learned he liked school and developed a passion for art.
After high school he enrolled in the American Academy of Art downtown, hoping to get his bachelors of fine arts in illustration. But his plans got derailed.
Three years and four student loans into college, tuition increased. Sylvertooth feared going further into debt. He also felt bad that his grandmother had been left to take care of his two little sisters. So he left school and returned home to help her.
For a year, he felt lost, and was nervous about finding a career to support his family. He was able to land a job scooping ice cream.
As he cast about, a friend told him about Year Up, a program that puts 18- to 24-year-olds who are neither working nor in school through a six-month boot camp and then a six-month internship with one of the nonprofit's corporate partners.
Year Up students earn a stipend — $150 a week during the boot camp and $200 during the internship.
Sylvertooth interned at Morningstar, where he and another Year Up intern manned the IT support desk and checked the audiovisual equipment in conference rooms.
He juggled the internship with heavy responsibilities. He gets paid to work as a home health aide to his ailing grandfather, spending 20 hours a week helping him bathe, eat and get around. And Sylvertooth recently was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
When his internship ended in July, Sylvertooth didn't have a job offer. But he "loved the experience" and now has a career focus. Inspired by his Year Up mentor, Sylvertooth said he wants to be a "white hat," or ethical hacker, helping protect computer systems from attacks. He hopes to get his bachelor's degree in computer science and apply for jobs in the tech field, keeping art as a hobby.
Sylvertooth calls his grandmother his hero for holding the family together despite a difficult life of her own.
Standing in the same dining room where she had left his suitcase, Felicia Sylvertooth, 59, broke down describing her pride in her grandson and her hope that he can find financial stability.
"When I was his age, I had three babies," she said. "He's living a life I never had."
Moments before Clayborn sat down for his final evaluation at Skolnik, Ricker met with the internship coordinators to discuss his progress.
Rand Haas, the program manager, and Harriette Coleman, program manager at the Alternative Schools Network, wanted to know how Clayborn was measuring up on the "seven As," core workplace skills such as attendance and appearance.
"Does he accept any job you give him?" Haas asked Ricker.
"Does he show appreciation?"
"All the time," Ricker said.
Ricker explained that Clayborn has come to be known as "Mr. Wonderful," because that's how he tells colleagues he is doing — "wonderful" — whenever they ask.
When Clayborn slowly revealed he didn't have stable housing and sometimes slept in a car, it was a wake-up call for many.
"I think we tend to pigeon-hole who a homeless person is; it's the person under the viaduct," Ricker said. "And you meet a talented kid like this and you see what it's doing to his life." He paused to collect himself. "And it's upsetting."
Ricker, to his own surprise, became passionate about housing issues. He compiled a long list of shelters that he would call in hopes of finding Clayborn a place to stay each night, and wrote letters to landlords vouching for Clayborn's employment.
Meanwhile, other surprises were in store.
During a turn with the engineering team, Clayborn was tasked with drawing out a floor plan of the plant's equipment.
When he returned with perfectly straight lines, the dimensions just right, the team realized they had found a rare talent.
"The kid was a natural," Ricker said. "He was pretty much out of the gate doing what our engineers would do."
Ricker kept Clayborn in engineering, where he watched videos to learn computer-assisted design until Skolnik bought him the software program and two new computers.
'No one has a heart like that'
Clayborn left work after his final evaluation not knowing if he would be hired. As he drove the Sentra to pick up his girlfriend, Cyerra Salter, from her job as a medical assistant at a hospital, he described the program as "amazing."
"I'm just from a place where people don't care about you, so when I see people treating me like they want me to succeed, I actually show them something," he said.
He added that Ricker occasionally gave him envelopes of cash to help cover food and motel rooms.
"Who does that?" Clayborn said, vowing to pay him back. "No one has a heart like that."
When Salter came to the car, wearing pink scrubs and pink Crocs, the couple embarked on their nightly routine. After picking up Salter's 5-year-old daughter, Anaiah, from day care, Salter searched on her iPhone for cheap motel rooms.
The trio drove an hour to Bridgeview, ending up at a Motel 6 where they could get two beds for $61. They picked up dinner at McDonald's. Once in the room, Clayborn checked for bedbugs, having been bitten at another motel.
Salter, 22, who had been dating Clayborn on and off since high school, said she could stay at her mother's house, but doesn't want to abandon him "now that he's trying to do good."
A week later came the good news: Skolnik planned to hire Clayborn as an apprentice to do engineering sales and safety work. He would be paid $11 an hour, and once he got his GED he would get health and 401(k) benefits.
"I can really see myself being an engineer," Clayborn said excitedly.
The same week, more good news: He, Salter and Anaiah were approved for a one-bedroom apartment in the South Shore neighborhood, a unit with freshly painted walls and big windows. The same colleague who gave Clayborn the ties offered some furnishings. Ricker gave him a 23rd birthday gift to help cover the first month's rent.
Elsewhere in the city, his friend Phillip Brown was getting good news as well.
As Brown sat down for his final evaluation at MetraFlex, company president Jim Richter offered him a job as a general laborer. Brown's eyebrows shot up and he clapped.
"I'm going to expect a hell of a lot more out of you," plant manager Jim Wollesen said before giving him a big hug.
Brown, Wollesen said, was "like a son I always wish I'd had."
Richter, who has hosted three interns but hired only Brown, said the program serves as a risk-free period to try out potential new hires.
Brown now makes $13 an hour plus health and retirement benefits.
"Give me two years, I'll be a welder," Brown said. Welders can earn upward of $70,000 a year.
The following week, the manufacturing careers program held a ceremony for the 12 graduating interns. Three were hired on by their host companies.
Eighty percent of participants complete the internship, and 70 percent of those who graduate are employed or attending post-secondary education within nine months.
Brown's older brother, Jeri Brown, was in the audience, shooting video on his phone as Brown gave a speech. He wiped away a tear.
"This is a big thing," Jeri Brown, 26, said. "You don't see things like this where we come from."
Jeri Brown, who lives in the Englewood neighborhood, had worried his little brother might follow in his footsteps. He said he was in jail at 17 on a drug delivery charge when his mother died, and served a prison sentence at 20 for a gun charge.
He said he always instructed Phillip to do good, but he remembers Phillip telling him one day: "You've got to show me. You've got to do the right thing."
That was a turning point for Jeri, who now works as a bakery supervisor, hoping to demonstrate a different way to make money.
By August, Brown had earned his GED and was still doing well at MetraFlex.
But Clayborn stumbled.
His attendance grew spotty. He had not yet finished his GED. At one point, Ricker didn't hear from him for two weeks.
Ricker finally got an email from Clayborn a week ago explaining he had split up with his girlfriend and was living with his mom.
Clayborn said in a text to a reporter that without use of his ex-girlfriend's car, it's been tough getting to work.
Skolnik is leaving the door open for Clayborn, who now has to walk through it.
"We can provide a great opportunity," Ricker said, "but it has to be met on the other side."