By Jim Swenson
“If you can’t read a tape measure — I hate to say it — but you’re worthless to me,” said 57-year-old Ron Fritz, pointing at the model of a tape measure.
The Telegraph Herald reports that dozens of tools were spread out on tables in a small, cramped work shed at the historic Four Mounds property in Dubuque, Iowa, just across the Wisconsin border. It was the second week of a nearly yearlong program called Housing, Education and Rehabilitation Training, or HEART.
The first week was spent reading about tool safety in the classroom. The weeks to come would be focused on rehabbing a dilapidated apartment house.
Fritz went through everything from hammers and pliers to utility knives and power tools. He held up a wood chisel.
“This thing, when it’s sharp, will shave the hairs on your arm.
“You need to familiarize them with the tools, and then they’ve got to learn about safety with the tools,” he added. “We stress how dangerous they are.”
Tesla Donath, 17, gained some experience in the program last year.
“I learned how to work the tools,” she said. “For a girl, I didn’t know how to use most of them.”
As the class continued, Fritz suggested each student figure out what he or she wanted to do in the future.
“Don’t come to the worksite because you want to get out of class,” he said. “Come to the worksite because you want to learn.”
David Harris of Community Housing Initiatives has long worked with Fritz.
“He’s so perfect for that program,” Harris said. “He has the skills to teach the kids and the patience to work with them.”
Growing up, Garrett Welter was a self-proclaimed “little misfit child who skipped a lot of school.” He didn’t believe he would graduate from Dubuque Senior High School and figured his “career” might be in fast food.
Then, he enrolled in the HEART program.
“It helped turn things around and helped me do better in life,” the 18-year-old Welter said.
The program started in 2003. In the past 13 years, dozens of students have learned how to be carpenters.
Fritz, a veteran carpenter and construction worker, wasn’t on board right away.
“I was concerned before I did this,” he said. “I was working with Gronen and said, ‘You’ve got to be crazy. This isn’t ‘Romper Room.’ This is construction.’ But John was pretty persuasive.”
Gronen recalled Fritz saying, “If you have any crazy idea of me working with kids, you can forget about it.”
“But he’s done a fabulous job,” Gronen said.
The students come from Dubuque Senior and Hempstead high schools, but have their classes at Four Oaks, one of 10 HEART partners. They earn a small stipend.
“They have challenges for making graduation and typically have not been performing well in the normal classroom,” Olson said. “This is an incentive to do well in the classroom.”
There is a 91 percent graduation rate among participants.
“They’ve created one of the most successful models of this kind in the community,” said Ellen Goodman Miller, who works in development and strategic partnerships at Gronen Development. “A lot of times, you look at the amount of people served. But this is a huge impact to each individual. It truly does restore lives.”