Were it not so arrhythmic, the sound of hammers echoing through the offices on any particular weeknight could be confused with bass coming through subwoofers. The whir of saws mixes with the blend of accents from all around the world filling the soundscape.
Marvens sits across from me in the front office of The Lantern Project, a non-profit located just outside of Atlanta in a community called Clarkston. The appearance of the office could fool any passerby with its location nestled in the warehouse rental of a corporate park.
Across the hall from where we sit is another smaller office separated from the front by a florescent-illumined corridor that leads to a large meeting room filled with round tables, whiteboards and safety posters. In the back are two windows and a door that provide the entrance to the large shop in the back, a warehouse adorned with half-completed projects: framed walls half-covered with dry wall, lighting units wired with LEDs and welding stations with barbecue grills made from old barrels.
Marvens has just finished taking a test, this one on basic job site communication. He is dressed in jeans and a polo, the usual uniform for most of the students here. Monday nights are for the core curriculum, a 14-week program where students learn the basics of construction, of which Marvens is close to finishing.
Marvens came to the US from Haiti, a 16-year-old boy with no siblings and whose parents were already here.
“Thirty-five seconds,” he says, thinking back to the events that brought him to Atlanta.
Five years ago, 35 seconds changed Marvens’ life forever. Thirty-five seconds was all it took for his house to crumble around him during the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that claimed over 230,000 Haitian lives in 2010. Marvens was one of the 300,000 injured, his leg crushed and broken by the falling cinderblock of his home.
“I didn’t have any passport or Visa or anything, so I had to stay,” he recalls. Marvens was stuck in a hospital located in the capital of Port-au-Prince for four months. Then, because of the outbreak of diseases like cholera, he was moved to a safer hospital.
“There were so many people dying in the hospitals so I had to travel somewhere else, to the center of the country, where it was much better,” he says. “They had a lot of doctors from a lot of other countries.”
Meanwhile, his mother and father were arranging for Marvens to come to the US as soon as he was healthy. His mother had been evacuated by the US military right after the earthquake.
“The doctors that helped my mom travel from Haiti to the United States, she talked to them, and they helped my father to bring me to the United States.”
After his leg had healed, Marvens traveled through Miami to Atlanta. He enrolled in high school and graduated in 2013. After working odd jobs, Marven was connected to The Lantern Project through a friend of a friend at church. The program started the next day, and Marven jumped right in.
The Lantern Project was started in 2014 as a way of providing opportunities and job training to refugees in the Clarkson area of Atlanta, an area known for having a concentrated population of displaced peoples.
“We serve to provide those struggling with poverty with a hand up, not a hand out,” says Luke Keller, the director of The Lantern Project. “For every five journeymen that are exiting the workplace market, there is only one person filling those shoes. And with the uptrend in the amount of displaced people coming to Atlanta, we see great opportunity in providing these individuals with job, leadership, trade and soft-skill development that can lead to high-paying jobs with opportunities for growth.”
Every student at The Lantern Project goes through the core curriculum, in which they learn the basics of construction along with leadership and job-finding skills. Students are coached through writing a resume and given the opportunity to hear from speakers who are brought in that have similar stories to those in the program. Every student is also assigned a mentor. This is an aspect of the program that Marvens really enjoys.
“Something unique I’ve seen in this school is the mentors and people coming in to tell their stories,” says Marvens. His favorite speaker was Shawn Hutchinson, an immigrant from Jamaica who had a dream to make a movie. “I like how even with people telling him not to do it, he still did it and succeeded.”
After students complete the first course, they have the option to choose which track of training they want to pursue. Opportunities include welding and pipe fitting, electrical, carpentry and masonry. The program takes students through a curriculum that is recognized in the construction field, making job placement much easier. At the end of these programs, The Lantern Project puts on a job fair for potential employers to meet the students and network.
Marvens has chosen electrical, a field with many openings for skilled technicians. When asked what he thinks the future holds for him, Marven is unsure.
“I’m not sure exactly, but I’m pretty sure I will keep on learning. I like to learn. Maybe get a major degree in electrical work.” He smiles at the idea of having a degree that, unlike his friends in Haiti who he says have gone to college, will actually get him a job.
“We need someone to run The Lantern Project in Haiti!” I say with a smile to Marvens. He smiles sheepishly. He says he would go back to Haiti to help, no question.
“Always give something back, because I was in the same situation and all kinds of people helped me. It was a blessing. Miracles.”