How might your life be different if you were offered a fresh start when you were younger? For 50 years, Operation Fresh Start (OFS) has been building the futures and transforming the lives of more than 8,000 young people with that question in mind. The mission of the nonprofit is to empower emerging adults on a path to self-sufficiency through education, mentoring, and employment training.
“I think how this organization started is just amazing,” said OFS Development Director Jody Weyers. “Jack Osteraas was a former police officer and saw the same young people on the street all the time. So he talked to some different funding partners and got enough money to buy a dilapidated house, and he got a crew of 8 young men together to rehab the house with him and work on their high school GED. It was through that swinging of the hammer and having a mentor to talk to about life that became the change that young people needed to better themselves for their own self-sufficiency.”
Since then, OFS has expanded to 34 staff and dozens of partner groups serving 200 young adults per year -- 80% of which are people of color -- through its hands-on construction, conservation, nursing, and other transitional programming. “Our core principles are #1: show up, #2: on time, and #3: ready to work,” Jody said. “Participants are getting an opportunity to shadow in all of the trades and get real-life experience of what it’s like to be on a job site.”
For example, OFS Legacy construction crews have built and renovated more than 250 affordable homes in Dane County, and the conservation crews have maintained and improved natural areas at local parks and prairies. As AmeriCorps members, participants will complete 1,000+ hours (80% in the field and 20% in the classroom), as well as earn their high school diploma and a $2,600 stipend to use within 7 years to further their education. OFS also helps them secure a driver’s license through its free Drive program with 4 Lakes Driving School. Transitions staff helps young people determine what their next career steps might be and follows up with them throughout the year after they complete the program.
“We always talk about OFS as a family, because we’re all about providing resources for and supporting our young people who are coming in,” Jody said. “It’s so rewarding to see the transformation in them 9 months to a year later and see them succeed.” That includes people like Jaedan Festge, who graduated from the OFS Legacy program last year and received Operation Fresh Start’s 2021 Participant of the Year Award. “Jaedan was one of the first people to go through the urban forestry program certification at Madison College,” Jody said. “He then got a limited-term summer restoration specialist position with Dane County Parks, and this fall is starting his second year at college.”
Another OFS program called Strive is career exploration in the construction and health care fields for individuals who have their high school diploma. Participants in these cohorts receive paid training to become a CNA or earn a pre-apprenticeship readiness certificate along with certification in CPR/First Aid and OSHA 10. They also learn resume-building, interviewing, and financial literacy skills. “Hopefully after 7 weeks, they have a nice glimpse of career paths they could potentially go down,” Jody said.
A new program for 2021 is called CareerScape Counseling, which further helps 18-24 year olds overcome barriers on their career exploration path by offering pop-up appointments to connect them with resources throughout the county. “We have found that the Dane County Job Center is great for older individuals, but people just out of high school who lost their touchpoint with guidance counselors may not know how to navigate those waters if they’re not going to 2- or 4-year schools,” Jody said.
Nearly 10 years ago, OFS began its Construction Graduate Crew program to offer yet another avenue for young adults to gain more paid experience completing work-for-hire residential, commercial, and municipal projects in the area. In 2015, OFS launched a $4.5 million capital campaign to move into a much larger space that its crews helped renovate. Young adults worked alongside Findorff, gaining skills in drywalling, steel studding, painting, flooring, plumbing, and electrical work. The converted church and school property on Milwaukee Street, which Jody refers to as a “labor of love,” opened in 2019 and also includes an education wing and space for tools and supplies.
“Grad Crew participants walk away with all these different credentials that hopefully will put them head and shoulders above other individuals coming out of school because they have all this real-world experience. We really want to show that you don’t always need a 4-year degree to enter these fields,” Jody said. “We’re working with different employers on these projects, and then our young people are hired into the trades, which is creating diversity within the workforce as well.”
This fall, OFS opened applications for its new parallel program, Conservation Graduate Crew, in partnership with the following organizations: Ascendium Education Group, City of Madison – Engineering Division, Dane County Parks, Groundswell Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, UW-Madison Arboretum, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Crews will prepare for a career in conservation and natural resource management by getting certifications in chainsaw training, pesticide application, prescribed burning, FEMA Safety, as well as a broader knowledge of identifying and removing invasive species, collecting prairie seeds, planting and pruning, and building boardwalks and trails.
“Especially with climate change right now, we’re kind of on the cusp of, we need to do something. And this is an industry that’s only going to grow,” Caroline Zimmerman, the first Conservation Graduate Crew Supervisor at OFS, said in a video introducing the program. “I love the fact that there are young people interested in conservation. Especially pulling from people who are of diverse backgrounds, which is really lacking in the conservation industry. Conservation Grad Crew is really going to be a way to get your foot in the door in a natural resource career without having a college degree.”
OFS also made headlines this fall when Dane County Executive Joe Parisi announced that the nonprofit has been selected to oversee the development of the Dane County Civilian Climate Corps. to work on energy efficient projects like winterizing buildings and increasing renewable energy use. According to a Cap Times article, OFS Executive Director Greg Markle said the initiative would train young people for “green jobs” and benefit the environment through hands-on experience working on climate issues.
OFS is looking to raise $1 million to support new programming as part of its 50th anniversary campaign. All donations will be matched up to $50,000 now through December. Markle said in a recent blog post that despite the growth since the nonprofit’s founding in 1970, the core of OFS is still to “establish a relationship with a young person and help them figure out to succeed.” To learn more and how you can help, visit operationfreshstart.org. (All photos courtesy of Operation Fresh Start.)