- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ikia Wallace wanted to break her drug addiction and dealing habit so bad that she decided to have a baby, hoping it “would give me the motivation to change.” But eventually, even that awesome parental responsibility didn’t keep her from “pursuing the streets.”

It wasn’t until Miss Wallace found herself one night freezing in an outdoor tent, albeit equipped with a television and a sofa, so she could be close to her lucrative business adjacent to the D.C. bus depot, that she hit her “bottom.”

Then, she got down on her knees and prayed “for God to intervene.” Hours later, Miss Wallace was arrested.

“I can’t believe I chose to live like that. … I can’t explain the insanity,” she said. “I never thought I’d stop using.”

That 2007 “possession with intent to distribute” arrest, the 39-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native says today, is what saved her life and set her on the road to recovery.

“I got locked up and my life began to change,” Miss Wallace said.

But the linchpin to Miss Wallace’s sustained recovery may hinge on passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan, or the $800 billion stimulus package that President Obama contends will save or create 3 million to 4 million jobs.

“The jobs we create will be in businesses large and small across a wide range of industries. And they’ll be the kind of jobs that don’t just put people to work in the short term, but position our economy to lead the world in the long term,” Mr. Obama said last week in his weekly radio address.

No paycheck, no spending. No spending, no economic recovery.

But when the stimulus bill is passed, in whatever its final watered-down version is after the Democratic leadership and the Republican opposition rip it apart, will the jobs measure help people, some like Miss Wallace, who need it most? Will there be enough workers, like Miss Wallace, trained in the industries for those new jobs, possibly 678,000 in the construction trades alone?

Even while wearing a home detention ankle bracelet, even after being sent back to prison, even while fighting more than 16 months to stay sober, Miss Wallace was among 17 low-income women who graduated from the Washington Area Women in the Trades (WAWIT) program last month.

Days later, Miss Wallace, an Obama supporter, was accepted into the D.C. Laborers apprenticeship program and a two-year program with a local masonry.

She was placed in gifted and talented programs during her school years. In June, she earned her GED, coming in the top 10 percent in reading in the nation while doing her last stint in a federal prison in Philadelphia.

“I started this program with an ankle bracelet and then had to go back inside,” Miss Wallace said. “But the case manager kept in touch, and when I got out this time, I re-enrolled in the program and graduated.”

The training program “gave me a good feeling like women could make big money like the guys,” said Miss Wallace, who likes to work with her hands. “Now I have options and, for the first time, not just a job but a career to look forward to.”

The WAWIT program is a collaborative work force development initiative of the YWCA National Capital Area, the Community Services Agency of Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO and Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) that provides seven weeks of pre-vocational, pre-apprenticeship training, adult basic education and 12 months of social services follow-up.

In its second year, 88 graduates have gone on to entry-level jobs in employer-sponsored training or union apprenticeship programs.

“The women are highly trained, but there is no work right now. So the stimulus package will provide opportunities for women to gain self-sufficiency by utilizing the training that they received in the program,” said Alice Drew, WAWIT program director.

“Not only are their lives changed, but they set a positive example for their families and the community as a whole,” she added.

Indeed, Miss Wallace hopes that by telling her story, “I can let other people know what they can do.” She promoted the WAWIT program while incarcerated. “I tell them that there’s help, and if I can do it, anybody can do it because I’ve been through the worst of the worst.”

Today, Miss Wallace is “looking for a way to be on God’s team.”

“Working Americans need paychecks, not stimulus checks and certainly not handouts for corporations which helped cause this crisis,” Terence M. O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborer’s International Union of North America (LIUNA), said during a press conference to announce union lobbying efforts, including television ads and automatic calling, aimed at U.S. senators.

LIUNA, with a half-million members, wants one-third instead of the current 20 percent of the stimulus package to go for construction jobs to rebuild American roads, bridges, schools, transit projects and new energy systems in a plan that “puts more people back to work instead of giving more handouts to the rich.”

Jacob Hay, a spokesman for LIUNA, said the organization also sponsors several job training programs. Based on LIUNA statistics, 15.3 percent of construction workers, or 1.4 million men and women, are jobless. Using U.S. Transportation Department formulas, the union says that “a $15 billion investment in our nation’s transportation system would support 522,000 jobs.” Also, “the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that due to years of neglect, the nation’s critical infrastructure is in need of a $1.6 trillion investment.”

State and local governments are so giddy at the prospect of receiving budget-rescuing federal funding for infrastructure upgrades through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Plan that some, like Maryland, already have wish lists of “shovel-ready” projects.

But they will need trained and ready workers like Miss Wallace, who now resides in a D.C. halfway house, where the allocation from the stimulus package would speed up repairs on two heavily traveled commuter bridges.

Tall, slim, her hair in neat cornrows, Miss Wallace said she got involved in the drug culture - mostly “boat,” or PCP - in middle school to keep from being “ostracized” and teased about her academic excellence. She kept “ducking and dodging” and did not get caught by police for selling crack cocaine until she was an adult. Though she spent the next two decades in and out of jail and rehabilitation programs, she prides herself on one thing: “I was never a thief.”

Her mother, who cares for her 7-year-old daughter, was a constant source of support throughout her struggles. “She always tried to put positiveness in me,” Miss Wallace said. Also, “I don’t think my daughter ever gave up on me.”

Miss Wallace said her recovery is now “built on a foundation.” And, she’s grateful that through the WAWIT program, “I did it clean.”

With or without passage of the president’s $825 billion stimulus package, Miss Wallace remains optimistic about her future as a responsible mother, who is free from “the drug life,” now that she has attained a marketable skill. “I am hopeful … there will always be a need for building.”

How else to forge an American recovery?

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