Adirondackers are practical people. Hands-on training has long been a tradition when it comes to learning how to build or paint house, cut down a tree, hunt, wait on table or to cook.
Learning the skills to accomplish all manner of tasks, be they for fun or profit, usually begins by apprenticing to (assisting) a person who is more skilled in that particular task.
The Keene Valley Congregational Church and the Keene Valley Library have employed that very practical approach to help people gain new skills that can be used to enhance their economic well-being. It began about seven years ago. At that time the church gave out contributions to help people of modest means pay their winter fuel bill.
Carmina Drake (Photo — Naj Wikoff)
Librarian Karen Glass suggested to Milton Dudley, pastor of the church, instead giving people money, give them a short-term job at the library wherein the library will train them in a particular set of skills they can use to get future work as they earn the money to cover their fuel costs.
"Everybody benefits," said Glass. "The library has an extra worker, the person has a job and earns the money they need, and the church has a mission where they can actually see growth. In the past, people have learned the organizational system of the library, how to do record keeping, and how to inventory our books. For the next position, I will be looking for somebody to help with publicity. After they will be able to say, this is the work I did, these are the skills I learned, this the kind of publicity I do, and provide examples. So the next person will get skills training on how to do publicity, build a portfolio, strengthen their resume, and get paid."
This past Sunday, the church held a fundraiser to help raise money for the program in the form of a post-service coffee hour that featured homemade pizza created by a pair of potters who, in an effort to supplement their income, bake pizzas in their wood-fired ovens (with the dough and ingredients prepared in the church's health certified kitchen).
"We are potters," said Cavan Drake of he and his wife Carmina. "We met in college, as we had side by side throwing wheels, took off 10 years ago, and made a go with the pottery but it is kind of a marginal thing, pretty hard to do. Luckily at a ceramic studio there is typically hard brick around, materials you need for a kiln, so we started building these wood-fired ovens. It worked out great plus we like to make bread."
"We were already selling pots at the farmers' markets, there were no vegetarian options, we love making pizza, and we wanted to attract people to the pottery so we put it all on a horse trailer. That's where we are at right now. Carmina makes a very wet dough from a starter called a poolish. We fire at around 800 degrees so the crust kind of blows out and gets that leopard kind of look. The ingredients are as local as we can get. Organic hormone free chesses, we work with Sugar House that makes a cheese that melts out real nice. Most of the wheat comes from the Hudson Valley. This summer we will sell our pizza along with our pots at the Elizabethtown and Keene Marcy Field markets, hope to make Lake Placid and Saranac Lake as well."
"An additional benefit of this lunch, is that people get exposed to Carmina and Cavan's wonderful pizza," said Glass. "They are a young couple starting a business. So we are not only raising money for a jobs training program, but helping a local couple expand awareness of their new enterprise. That's exactly what this program is supposed to do."
Aside from raising money through the luncheon at the church, the primary effort to generate support for the jobs training program is through the Adirondack Foundation's new crowd-funding initiative established to expand the number of people contributing for various charitable projects and programs.
"The idea was to take a lot of small donors that could add up to something significant rather than one large donor to fund it," said pastor Milton Dudley. "We want to encourage the five, ten and twenty dollar gifts to help fund this work-training project that takes someone from the community and trains them for a job that they can use in the community. At this point, we have about $225 remaining to raise on the Adirondack Foundation's crowd-funding website to reach our goal."
The importance of teaching people new skills and providing them the opportunity to generate additional income has ramifications far beyond the small hamlet of Keene Valley.
Looking back in history, the abolitionists John Brown came to Lake Placid (North Elba) to provide hands-on training on how to farm, raise and sheer sheep, and market their produce for the free blacks that had moved here as part of Gerrit Smith's effort to enable them to gain the right to vote (then only people who owned land valued at $250 could vote). Little realized today because of his subsequent actions at Harper's Ferry, Brown was then a leading expert in preparing wool for market.
Close to home are the outcomes of a recent study published last week on how much a person had to earn per hour to afford a one bedroom apartment, which in Essex County is a bit over $14 per hour. How many jobs in the county even meet that level?
"I think the minimum wage is the wrong conversation," said Martha Swan, director of John Brown Lives!. "I think the conversation needs to be not only a living wage but meaningful work work that not only gives people the means to keep a roof over their head but to be able to thrive. You know, bread and roses."
In Keene the Church and Library have joined forces to help people gain meaningful work and earn a living wage, while in Lake Placid May 6 9, John Brown Lives! will be presenting a series of events that address the scourge of slavery past and present, and the economic link that ties all these strands together.