Thomas Foster doesn’t like to talk about the robbery that landed him in prison three years ago.
“I put myself in a bad situation,” he said simply.
What does get him talking?
On a recent Saturday, the 23-year-old was hunched over a table wearing a huge black plastic face mask and heavy clothing as he practiced welding two pieces of metal together using a blowtorch that reached about 4,000 degrees.
The excitement in his voice was palpable as he explained how the machine works, the different types of welding processes and how much he needs to practice.
“I can do this 1,000 times and still mess up,” Foster said. “So I’m really just practicing to understand … my mistakes so I can stop stuff like this from happening,” he said, pointing to two pieces of metal welded together on his desk. When he melted the metals together he allowed air to get in, inadvertently creating bubbles.
Foster has spent every weekend since Memorial Day earning his basic welding certificate at Daley College on Chicago’s Far Southwest Side. He’s part of the inaugural class of the Weekend Warriors, a new program started by the Inner-City Muslim Action Network and made possible with the help of City Colleges of Chicago.
The pilot program wraps up this weekend as Foster and 10 other students travel to Washington, D.C. IMAN is holding a ceremony for those who complete the program on Sept. 12.
This program was deliberately held during the evenings over the weekend, some of the most violence times in Chicago during the summer.
Each weekend began with a college success class on Friday. Students get additional wraparound services, including counseling, free meals and a $1,200 monthly stipend. Saturday and Sunday are spent learning and practicing welding techniques in Daley College’s brand new manufacturing lab. It’s paid for by IMAN, costing about $10,000 per student. The cost to City Colleges was $63,000.
Many students are simultaneously earning credentials in carpentry and electricity through IMAN, meaning they’re in school seven days a week. They’re hoping to use these skills to work in construction technology, start their own business or continue on at the community college or college.
IMAN has worked with formerly incarcerated men for years, providing workforce training and transitional housing. But the programs are typically during the week.
“The minute they got out of our sights, then you had most intense violent spikes of violence [on] Friday, Saturday nights,” said Rami Nashashibi, IMAN’s executive director.
That gave him an idea: “What if we literally take away weekends for 400 [of the] most vulnerable young people in our city when it comes to violence, get them caught up in program that provides credit and introduce them to the college system?”
Four hundred students is the goal if the program receives enough funding. This summer, they started small with about a dozen students. One student returned to prison for a parole violation. The rest have had nearly perfect attendance, including Tarik Wilson, 27.
Wilson spent his early 20s in and out of prison and much of his youth caught up selling drugs, he said. But his life was also filled with trauma. His brother was killed by the police. He was a student at Chicago’s Fenger Academy in Roseland when classmate Derrion Albert was murdered near the high school. He said it was hard to imagine a future for himself.
“It was a grey spot,” Wilson said “It was the unknown. Just having to get past 17. So you graduate from high school, that’s like, ‘phew,’ especially going to school where I was going.”
Wilson got connected with IMAN through a family member. He said he was skeptical of the Weekend Warriors program at first. Now, he wants to use these skills to start his own business.
Foster was skeptical, too. He loves learning, but wasn’t sure about welding.
“When I looked it up it was like, ‘I’m going to be making fences,’” he said. ‘It just didn’t look appealing to me. But when I got in and then there’s this torch and I’m melting metal together. It was actually very cool.”
Foster attended community college in Joliet and Chicago before going to prison. He said he appreciates why the program is held on the weekends.
“When you get off, it’s so late that you just want to go home and chill,” he said. “It keeps you away from a lot of stuff because anything can happen. You don’t even have to be involved in it. Just being outside something can happen.”
He says the program doesn’t just provide a path back to college, but a place where he can gain confidence.
“Especially with guys coming from a street background,” Foster said. “It gives us an opportunity to view life from a different lens. … It just puts you in a mindset of wanting to change and do better. One, for yourself because then you start to realize in yourself, ‘Hey, I can actually do this.’ Then, when you see other people having faith in you and believing in you it’s like, ‘OK, I really can do it and I got support behind me.’”
And in this class, that faith is reinforced time and again.
As class concluded last Friday, teacher Tony Pro ended with a quote.
“The big shots in life are the little shots that kept shooting,” he told the students. “You might think you’re little now. Just keep shooting because you have plenty of room to grow … I expect greatness out of all of you.”
One by one, the students came up to shake his hand or give him a hug.
“You gonna make me cry,” one student said.
Moments later, they piled out of the building into a clear, dark night. A few took a moment to smoke a cigarette in the parking lot and wind down from the long day before heading home.
But they don’t have long to socialize. In 10 hours, they were expected back for another full day of school.