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Once homeless, graduates learn job, social skills

Thursday’s graduation ceremony will be the first that the Pine Street Inn has hosted in three years, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, giving participants a sense of accomplishment.

The Pine Street Inn has a job training program and will be holding their first graduation outside in three years on Thursday. Kitchen trainee Taisha O’Bryant prepares mac and cheese meals in the kitchen.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

For Stephanie Thurston, the work has become therapeutic. Over the past several months — after she entered recovery from a crack cocaine addiction — she has learned to clean and sanitize as a housekeeper and custodian, part of a workforce development program run by the Pine Street Inn.

There is something poetically curative, she said, about housekeeping.

“It’s like cleaning my life up, little by little,” the 36-year-old mother of three said.

The work training has helped her rebuild her life, stay sober and off the streets, and engaged with her three teenage daughters. She soon starts a full-time job as a custodian at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, which partners with the Pine Street Inn training program.

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But first, she will walk the stage in a graduation ceremony Thursday, providing for her a sense of accomplishment she could not have imagined two years ago.

“Just being in a cap and gown, it will mean a lot to me,” said Thurston, who is living in a sober home in Dorchester. “It feels good, to be able to complete something.”

Thursday’s graduation ceremony will be the first that the Pine Street Inn has hosted in three years, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and nearly 100 of the 260 participants who have graduated in that time might walk the stage, organizers said. For some of them, it’s the first time graduating from anything. Many are already working in the private workforce, including at area hospitals and restaurants. Others, such as Thurston, expect to start soon.

The graduation ceremony, organizers said, will serve as a long-due celebration for participants as well as for a program that has been a central part of Pine Street Inn’s work to provide resources, such as job training, to people who need it most. The nonprofit organization runs housing and shelter sites and related services throughout Boston.

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And in recent years, organizers said, the work training program has taken on a higher level of importance amid the economic and emotional toll that the COVID pandemic has had on people without a home or job skills. Many of the people who enter the program were recently living on the streets or in shelters; some still are.

As city officials look to address the region’s opioid and homelessness crises by providing transitional housing, social justice advocates say the workforce development training program plays an equal role by giving people the skills — and confidence — to stay on the path to recovery.

“It involves getting their life back, through all of the emotional struggles, the trauma they’ve been through; we’re trying to help them piece their life back together,” said Lyndia Downie, president and executive director of the Pine Street Inn.

In the program, participants spend eight weeks in a classroom setting, learning life skills such as financial literacy and how to use digital technology. They also learn mindfulness and other skills that prepare them for life in a work environment — lessons on how to interact with colleagues and managers, and in some cases customers. They also learn how to prepare for an interview.

Then, they spend up to 16 weeks as apprentices in the Pine Street Inn’s kitchen or housekeeping departments, learning the hands-on skills for a job. Participants in the iCater kitchen department help prepare thousands of meals a day.

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Tai Irwin, who works as one of the program’s job placement specialists, said that participants have gone on to work in different jobs, not just housekeeping or catering. But the underlying goals of the program, including the mindfulness workshops, he said, are to equip people to succeed in the workforce at whatever stage of life they may be in.

“It builds confidence,” Irwin said, adding that many of the participants are at low stages in life, for a variety of reasons, and may suffer from emotional trauma.

Lorie L. Spencer, a program manager at Beth Israel Lahey Clinic, said her organization has hired three people from the program since she formed a relationship with Pine Street just over two years ago; two of them work in food services, and one as an administrative assistant.

Each of them, she said, were well trained for the positions, in spite of work histories (or the lack of them) that would have normally complicated their job searches. And they are dedicated, she said.

“We want people to come in who are prepared, dedicated to work, and I believe that these are some of the most dedicated people to hire,” she said, “because of what the work means to them.”

This year’s graduates include Eugene Perkins, 60, who recently moved in to a two-bedroom apartment in Dorchester, after several years living on the streets. He battled drug and alcohol addiction after his wife died in 2015. “I went off the grid,” he said.

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Perkins said he has completed job training programs before, and earned certifications to work in cosmetology, and as a nurse’s assistant. But the Pine Street program served a different purpose, helping him get his life back in order, particularly the mindfulness program, he said. He will finish the apprenticeship program soon, and hopes to get a job that will bring a sense of stability.

“When you have a job, you have freedom,” he said. “It makes me feel that I’m contributing to society. Makes me feel I’m living, instead of existing.”

Taisha O’Bryant, 45, discovered a passion for cooking through her work in the program. On Thursday, she will serve as the keynote speaker.

She has been living on the streets and in shelters since she was 10 years old, she said. O’Bryant described the hardship of raising her siblings after her mother died, and watching them pass away as adults, and raising her own children. Recently, a housing coordinator she works with referred her to the program.

One recent morning, she headed to a job interview for a cook’s position at a new sushi restaurant in the Seaport District. “I was on time, 9 a.m.,” she boasted. At the end of the interview, she was offered the job. She starts next week.


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617.