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Students to build homes at subdivision

Growing up in Immokalee, Daniel Trejo-Garcia has seen his father try to fix anything that breaks around the house.

The construction worker has inspired him to do the same when he’s old enough to have a home of his own.

“He would do it himself. I would like

to do so, in the future, with my family,” Daniel said.

He also wants to work in construction like his father, but go further up the chain of command.

While many high school students are undecided about their career paths, Daniel, 16, has an action plan for his future thanks to the support of his parents — and The Immokalee Foundation’s new program Career Pathways: Empowering Students to Succeed.

The nonprofit foundation’s mission is to empower children and young adults who have grown up in poverty to change the course of their lives.

Immokalee, a tiny farming town east of Naples, has a population of less than 34,000 — representing less than 10% of Collier County’s total population, according to an economic report published by Florida Gulf Coast University.

That report also shows:

The agriculture industry accounts for roughly 34% of all employment in the town, putting downward pressure on wages.

About 40% of Immokalee residents have a high school diploma, GED, or equivalent.

The median household income is under $30,000, with more than 70% of households in the town earning less than $50,000 annually.

The Career Pathways program is designed to prepare students for well-paying, in-demand professional careers in four areas: engineering and construction management, health care, business management and education and human services.

No surprise, Daniel has chosen the engineering and construction pathway. After hearing about the program, he rushed to apply — and when he got accepted into it he felt grateful for such an “amazing” opportunity.

Summer school

Over the summer, Daniel and other program participants received a $250 stipend from The Immokalee Foundation for completing a six-week course on the basics of construction, a prerequisite for more advanced training.

Now Daniel attends an after-school program once a week at the local technical college that’s building on his knowledge of construction and engineering. If all goes as planned, he’ll finish high school with hands-on experience and other important credentials that could land him a good-paying job with or without a bachelor’s degree.

Daniel is also enrolled in Immokalee High’s Academy of Engineering, which aligns with the career pathway he’s chosen.

A few weeks ago, he and a handful of other students at Immokalee High, worked on a Habitat for Humanity home for a needy family in their town — where the poverty rate tops 43%. During the volunteer build, students handled a variety of jobs, from hammering nails to cleaning up the job site, supervised by a lead instructor in the construction academy.

In March, Daniel and his peers will start building a small subdivision in Immokalee through a partnership designed to give them more real-world experience so they can land construction jobs in Southwest Florida — and move up higher and more quickly to management.

“We don’t want to make laborers, or tradesmen,” explained Noemi Perez, The Immokalee Foundation’s president and CEO. “We are looking to really equip our students and empower them to be in more of a management, supervisory role.”

Land donated

Collier Enterprises, a Naples-based real estate, agriculture and investment company, donated 8 acres of vacant land for the new housing project. The company has strong ties to foundation, with its CEO Donald Huffner serving on the charity’s board of directors — and it has a big interest in what happens in Immokalee as one of the largest landowners.

After hearing about the foundation’s idea to start a hands-on construction program for high school students in Immokalee, Huffner sought out property in his company’s portfolio that it could offer up for that use. The land is less than half a mile from Immokalee High and it’s already zoned for single-family development, said Pat Utter, vice president of real estate and club operations for Collier Enterprises.

The land, valued at $290,000, was a “remnant parcel” that was left out of a large sale of property, Utter said.

“The county has been interested in acquiring it for some drainage improvements,” he said. “Also, we had some affordable housing developers approach us about it in the recent past. It wasn’t something that was on the market.”

Collier Enterprises is also handling the permitting for the housing project, offering to pay $100,000 to cover the cost of it.

Additionally, the company has agreed to provide $500,000 in matching funds to put in the infrastructure, including water and sewer, drainage, underground electric, roads, sidewalks and street lights.

The Immokalee Foundation is still raising the money to match the $500,000 donation from Collier Enterprises. The foundation is half way there after receiving a $250,000 gift from the Ray Foundation — and it has until April to come up with the rest.

Another partner

Collier Enterprises isn’t the only corporate partner involved in the housing project.

Naples-based BCB Homes is acting as the general contractor. The company’s leadership has long been a champion for Immokalee — offering internships to the area’s high school students in the past and even hiring one of those students.

Greg Brisson, president of BCB Homes, said when he heard about the Career Pathways construction program from a client who serves on The Immokalee Foundation’s board, he immediately jumped at the opportunity to get involved. Why?

“We have a very, very strong construction industry,” Brisson said. “It is in a sense our manufacturing industry in this area and we have in many cases a shortage of employees or employable people who could get into management — field management, project management — roles that don’t necessarily need to have a college education.”

After getting on board with the program, Brisson said he reached out to Stofft Cooney Architects in Naples about donating the design and engineering work for the homes — and principal John Cooney eagerly agreed to do it.

BCB has a strong desire to hire locally, as a way to give back to the community, so Career Pathways could be a big help in that way too, Brisson said.

While Brisson sees the Career Pathways program as “absolutely necessary” in this community, he said it has the potential to grow far beyond the borders of Immokalee, with the industry facing such a severe shortage of skilled workers in Florida and across the country.

“I believe it is absolutely scaleable and it’s not just specific to Immokalee,” he said. “It is potentially a pilot program. This kind of program could be implemented all over the country.”

Working for pay

Students in the Career Pathways program won’t just learn valuable lessons by building homes in the new subdivision, they’ll earn an hourly wage — and they’ll have something to show for their hard work as homes rise from the ground and get completed and families move in.

“Visually, it’s much more impactful because it’s there and you can see it. You can see the product,” Perez said.

The new community will have 18 houses. It won’t be an affordable housing project, but it will offer more affordable homes, with prices starting at $250,000, Perez said.

“They are not restrictive toward any type of individual,” she said. “It’s really for the community of Immokalee.”

Homes will be 1,600 square feet, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Buyers will have four designs to choose from.

Students could build two to three homes a year. At that rate the project — off Dade Street near the Immokalee State Farmers Market — could be completed within five to seven years.

Returning home

The Immokalee Foundation, which provides a range of educational and support programs for children in need, created Career Pathways after researching the success of the students it has helped over the years. The foundation discovered that while 91% of its students go on to graduate with a college or other post-secondary degree, 40% of those graduates aren’t working in their field of study.

The problem? Many of the students want to work in Immokalee or elsewhere in Southwest Florida, but the jobs they’ve prepared or trained for aren’t in high demand here.

“Many of our students want to come back to this area because they want to help their families,” Perez said. “Many of them are leaving and going into things that aren’t in demand locally.”

Over the past year, the Naples area alone has added 1,200 new construction jobs, based on the latest report by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

Meanwhile, supervisory jobs in construction are growing at nearly 4% a year in Southwest Florida, with salaries ranging from $55,000 to $75,000 a year, according to data compiled by The Immokalee Foundation.

‘Ahead of the game’

While The Immokalee Foundation has found partners for the other three growth fields targeted by the Career Pathways program, construction and engineering is “ahead of the game” because of the strength of its partners and their buy-in to the housing project, which will offer an opportunity to train students safely and conveniently at one location, Perez said.

“Everyone we talk to gets excited about what we’re doing,” she said.

The Career Pathways program starts in sixth grade with career exploration. That includes career panels, field trips and mentor meetings. By the end of eighth grade, the students choose their path and develop an action plan.

The parents of students enrolled in the pathways program are “on board and excited” about what the future holds, Perez said.

To be in the program students must earn good grades, volunteer in the community, show good behavior and demonstrate they’re highly motivated and determined to succeed, on top of meeting low-income requirements.

“It’s not hard to find students who qualify,” Perez said.

However, the program’s size is limited by the funding the foundation has for it, she said. If Perez had it her way, she’d like to have hundreds more enrolled across all four pathways.

“We currently serve 420 students. We would like to serve many more, but it’s just a matter of finances,” she said.

Leading by example Now a junior, Daniel Trejo-Garcia said he’s just glad he got accepted into the career readiness program.

His father, he said, works in roofing, but wants him to do better.

Daniel wants to be an electrician — and hopes to start his own electrical company one day close to home.

“I’ve always been interested in how electricity works and how it can power our everyday technology,” he said.

He wants to set a good example for his two younger sisters.

“I for sure want to return to Immokalee ... I know there are other students that say they want to leave Immokalee the first chance they get. I don’t understand this perspective ... because Immokalee hasn’t done anything wrong to us.”

His other wish? To give back to Immokalee as much as he can, he said, and to make his family, his community and The Immokalee Foundation — which is investing so much in him — proud.

“I’m willing to work to get to where I need to be in life,” he said.

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