Marc Mack spent 20 years on the streets and in prison. In all that time, he never found a place he could call home.
But after graduating Wednesday from a training program for the homeless run by the Pine Street Inn, Mack said he has found meaning in an unlikely place: a wood shop, making cutting boards.
He takes discarded wood, etches out its defects, and applies finish before selling the final product at farmer’s markets.
Mack saw reflected in his work the progress he was making in his life.
“It was like looking in the mirror,” he said, fidgeting with his newly awarded certificate. “It’s very therapeutic.”
Mack is one of the 105 graduates who completed the job training program this year and now say they not only have a new shot at employment but a new life ahead.
Since he was 14, Mack said he has been living on his own, first on the streets of North Carolina then in Boston, in a struggle to find housing and a job. He was released from prison last year after serving time for breaking and entering, a crime he said he committed simply to find a place to sleep.
After three years in prison, he eventually found himself at Pine Street Inn, a nonprofit that provides services for homeless men and women. Mack said he began the building maintenance job training program in December and immediately became entranced with transforming raw materials into goods.
“For years I had been trying to get out of a ditch, and they gave me a ladder,” he said with poise in his crisp cap and gown. “I have the ability and capacity to go almost anywhere.”
Family, friends, city officials, and alumni from the program packed beneath a tent at the Pine Street Inn courtyard Wednesday morning to celebrate the graduates’ accomplishments, though only about 50 grads walked the stage – the rest already had jobs to report to.
About 50 percent of graduates find employment at a liveable wage or enter further training programs, said Pine Street spokeswoman Jennifer Harris.
The program is supported by private donors and government money, she said. Money also is generated through the goods and services provided by those in the job training program.
The nonprofit began holding graduation ceremonies 10 years ago, said Pine Street president Lyndia Downie, because many graduates never had a public celebration of their accomplishments.
“For people who haven’t been through it [homelessness], they don’t understand how hard it is to pick yourself up,” she said.
After the ceremonies ended, 45-year-old Lisa Smythwick-Fernandes stood inside the Pine Street cafeteria, quietly celebrating her graduation from the food preparation training program.
She never completed high school and has been out of work for six years. But on Wednesday, she said, “I feel like I’ve accomplished something.”
She is looking for a job and said she feels confident she will land something soon. Aside from improving her job prospects, Smythwick-Fernandes said Pine Street gave her a family to depend on. She hopes to one day come back and help others.
“I feel like I belong,” she said, her voice catching. “I don’t feel like an outsider anymore.”
Others saw their graduation as a second chance.
Ismael Gonzalez worked in carpentry and construction until he was abruptly laid off a year ago. The 39-year-old said he could not find work and became homeless. He has housing now and training that he hopes will give him a boost as he looks for a job.
Certificate in hand, he said he felt strong.
“People can see me differently,” he said. “I can depend on my skills.”