Karen Heller: Ready, willing & graduated

Paul Williams leads the 2011 graduating class of Ready,Willing & Able to the stage of the Freedom Theater.
Paul Williams leads the 2011 graduating class of Ready,Willing & Able to the stage of the Freedom Theater. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer)

Thirty once-homeless men complete a program designed to give them direction.

Posted: May 08, 2011

Graduation was Thursday for the 2011 class of Ready, Willing & Able. This was huge. For many of the 30 men, some in their 40s, smart in their powder-blue gowns and mortarboards, the night marked the first graduation ceremony of their messy, complicated, ultimately fulfilling lives.

These are the other men in blue, working by the roadside across the city in cobalt jackets, wielding plastic bags and collecting trash. RWA, celebrating its 10th year in Philadelphia, has helped 400 formerly homeless men (and some women), virtually all with long histories of drug or alcohol abuse, two-thirds of them ex-cons, learn life and job skills, find a place to live and a full-time job, while paying them a minimum $7.40 an hour. On average, the men graduate with $3,000 in savings.

RWA is a model in combating homelessness and welfare dependence, and reversing the crushing 40 percent rate of recidivism. The Doe Fund in Manhattan launched RWA programs in New York and here. A Harvard study last year found that the program's graduates are 60 percent less likely to return to prison.

Paul Williams, 44, told his fellow graduates at the Freedom Theater he "lived as an addict" for almost half his life. "I was in and out of jail, and it got harder and harder to find work." He said, "I was getting older and older, and had never accomplished anything."

Williams spoke of being clean for 18 months, living in Mount Airy with his fiancée and their young daughter, working as a prep cook at Chickie's & Pete's.

Participants must be sober for 30 days and give up welfare before moving to the RWA building at 12th and Bainbridge. The 70 male residents stay, on average, eight months to a year, submitting to random drug tests twice weekly. Williams said he daily walked the many miles from the Outley Shelter in West Philadelphia to the facility, hoping to be accepted.

The local organization receives $1 million annually from New York, Doe Fund officials said, but it functions independently, with an annual $2.7 million operating budget, funding derived from the city's Office of Supportive Housing, foundations, charitable donations, and fee-for-service contracts. Later this year, RWA plans to move next door to a larger facility. The operation is modest and quarters cramped. Often, three employees, many RWA graduates, share one windowless offices.

For all its good work, the Doe Fund has suffered its share of bad public relations - generated by the salaries paid its founder and his family.

Doe Fund founder and president George McDonald was paid almost $400,000 in 2008, according to the most recent tax returns on file; McDonald said he earned $320,000 the next year. His wife, chief development officer Harriet Karr McDonald, was paid $217,290 in 2008. John McDonald, the founder's son, serves as the organization's chief financial officer, earning almost $200,000 in 2008. Two years earlier, the fund paid George McDonald $147,000 in rent to operate out of his Upper East Side townhouse.

"My family and I have devoted our lives to this, raising over $600 million since we started, and $250 million has gone into the pockets of the people we've helped," George McDonald said. "We built a huge organization, and earn less money than other people who have the same revenue." He said, "We run a business, not a charity."

The organization's good work is commendable. "We're helping people to be independent and self-sufficient. We're giving them the tools to be men, to be fathers, how to avoid high-risk situations," said Philadelphia program director LeeRoy Jordan. The few graduates who relapse are welcomed back. Jordan said, "This is a sanctuary."

Marcell Chambers runs RWA's kitchen, training residents to work in food service. He treated Thursday's graduates and their families to an Asian fusion repast. Four years ago, he lived in the facility. "I remember being out at K&A - Kensington and Allegheny - in the middle of winter, picking up trash and remembering how grateful I was for that hot meal," he said. Now, at 27, married, with a child and another on the way, he serves those hot meals, helping others.

"Living here, I got the idea that my story wasn't unique. I wasn't an anomaly," he told me. "I cleaned toilets happily. I have a lot more respect for life than when I walked in here." Chambers understands the organization's mission: "What we're doing is molding men."

Contact columnist Karen Heller at kheller@phillynews.com or 215-854-2586. Read her blog posts on Blinq and her work at www.philly.com/KarenHeller. Follow her at Twitter @kheller.


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