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Productive Day was a "life-changing experience"

Ayesha Gilbert remembers her first days on a Productive Day work site: "I'm giving attitude, like, 'Give me the paintbrush! I want the saw!' and they're like, 'No, you have to crawl before you walk.'"

She credits the Productive Day team with helping her go from crawling to flying – with an electrician's license, a car and hopes of buying a home for herself and her son.

Productive Day has a construction training program for Hennepin County residents on probation or parole. Probation officers can refer people to the program, where they learn from journeyman carpenters as they help repair houses in the county and prepare them to be placed on the market.

"We kind of view this program as a training ground for developing work ethics and working out some of the barriers," explained Probation Officer Michelle Scheidemantle, who serves as a liaison between the program and participants' assigned probation officers.

County employee Kari Wright said Gilbert "came in with a lot of barriers. She was on the program quite a while, but she kept coming back, on time, with a very positive personality — she's done great work."

Trainee learning construction skills

Graduates of the program can be accepted by trade unions and find careers in carpentry, plumbing, and more.

"Because we have relationships with these unions, we can open doors for people who have a history that otherwise might have kept them out," Wright said.

Gilbert struggled with alcoholism and depression, but she said, " becoming part of Productive Day gave me structure and a reason to wake up, to want to do something."

Scheidemantle says that structure can make a big difference. "When people walk in the door, we ask where they see themselves in three to five years. They all want to be independent and self-sufficient. They want a career, not going from job to job.'

Gilbert said she originally wanted to be a cook, but "what I realized is I like to use my hands, I like to build. And they put time and care into me, and taught me a skill I could go after."

It wasn't easy, she says. "There was one point I threw in the towel with Jim [McAllister, Productive Day program manager] and was done. And that very day, he was asking me, 'Are you ready to come back?' And I said, 'Yes!'"

Gilbert and her son have gone through periods of homelessness. She always managed to keep them sheltered, "but now we're looking at purchasing a home, and my son said, 'It feels so good.'"

Productive Day "was a life-changing experience, and I'm so grateful for it," she said.

This story reflects Hennepin County disparity reduction priorities in education, employment, income, and justice.