After coming home from jail three months ago, Donan “Chucky” Cosme, 28, was depressed. He spent six months locked up for several criminal offenses, which he was instructed not to disclose, and missed a major milestone: his daughter’s birth in February. Back in Hyde Park, Cosme had his freedom but no income to provide for his family. Then he got a chance to enroll in Operation Exit.
“Once I got out, I had a choice: To continue making poor decisions or commit myself to making a better life for me and my kids,” Cosme said Wednesday. “That’s when I received my golden ticket and was referred to Operation Exit.”
Cosme spoke at an Operation Exit graduation ceremony, held at the Sheet Metal Workers International Association Local 17 training facility in Dorchester. He was among 15 graduates who completed the 3½-week program for people who have been in the criminal justice system or are considered to be at high risk.
The program provides training in the building trades, and participants received certifications in workplace safety, first aid, and CPR. They also visited building trades unions, learned how to weld, worked on basic job skills, and completed several projects with sheet metal union instructors, such as making tool boxes, trash cans, and tin flower pots.
Their next step is to interview for a job with unions in the building trades. The interviews are being organized by Brian Doherty, general agent for the Building and Construction Trades Council of the Metropolitan District, a program organizer said.
The program was established last year by Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston, a former union organizer who approached representatives of the building trades in hopes of combatting violence by giving “opportunities to people who don’t have opportunities.”
“I’m proud of all of you in this class,” Walsh said. “I don’t care what your [criminal record] says. I don’t care what you did in the past. . . . All I care about is what’s going on in the future.”
This is the second class of graduates, after 16 people completed the program last year, the city said.
Boston spent an estimated $60,000 to $70,000 in grants and private funds to train the most recent class, said Kimberly Pelletreau, deputy director of Youth Options Unlimited Boston, the city agency that runs the program.
Graduates who get a job with one of the unions have the potential to earn $50,000 to $100,000 annually, she said. As union members, they also enjoy health benefits, training, and retirement income, Doherty said.
Conan Harris, deputy director of Walsh’s Office of Public Safety Initiatives, urged graduates to make the most of the opportunity. “You’re going to have to fight like hell for you,” he said. “You got to make sure you’re determined to make sure your life is better.”
Walsh and police Commissioner William B. Evans called on the graduates to help the city fight violence by reaching out to young people who may be tempted by street life. They cited the murder of Jonathan Dos Santos, 16, who was fatally shot last week in Dorchester, and 7-year-old Divan Silva, who was shot in the buttocks while riding his bicycle on Bowdoin Street last month.
Walsh said he has heard city gang leaders are targeting children between ages 11 and 14 for recruitment.
“I’m targeting them too,” he said. “I’m targeting them so that we can give them opportunities so they don’t have to go down the road that a lot of us in this room went down.”
One graduate, Lanisha Bland, 27, of Dorchester, said she had been out of work for two years when she enrolled in Operation Exit. She was referred to the program by Dana Jackson, a city outreach worker.
“He was asking me, Are you ready,’ ” Bland recalled. “I said, ‘I’m ready for whatever it is.’ ”
Bland hopes to become a pipe-fitter. “It’s not a regular job. It’s a career,” she said.
Cosme’s fiancee, Susie Santiago, 34, said Operation Exit gave him hope. “An unfortunate situation turned into a fortunate situation for our family,” she said. “I’m really proud of him.”