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February 9, 2006
Jackson Heights Doe Fund To Continue Another Year

by Ivan Pereira
Six months ago, Alton Fitts' life was on the "ups and downs." After spending three years in prison for drug use, the 36-year-old New Jersey native wanted a second chance, but he had nowhere to live and his options were limited.

"I didn't have a steady job and I couldn't see myself living in a shelter," he said.

These days, Fitts has regained his confidence by doing a job that most would find strange and tedious: cleaning the sidewalks on 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights.

He is part of Doe Fund's Ready, Willing & Able program, which employs formerly homeless people to clean streets while giving them secure, drug-free transitional housing and job training and life-skills courses. Besides Jackson Heights, Doe Fund programs run in Forest Hills, Woodside, Kew Gardens, Richmond Hill, Rockaway and Far Rockaway.

Fitts, dressed in his blue Doe Fund uniform, recounted his experiences with the program last Friday at a news conference where Assemblyman Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights) announced that he secured $25,000 in state funding to keep the program on 37th Avenue running for another year.

Even though Fitts has to wake up at 5:30 in the morning and work eight-hour shifts five days a week, he is happy that he's making a difference.

"The Doe Fund gave me an opportunity to get my life back, so I can give back to the community," he said. "I feel good being drug-free and working."

Residents of Jackson Heights in return are grateful for the work Fitts and other Doe trainees have done, said Ralph Moreno, a longtime Jackson Heights resident and Community Board 3 member.

"We find garbage all over the streets," Moreno said. "It has become a real problem. Having Doe here is a real help for us."

Though he says that he enjoys helping the community, Fitts eventually wants to move out and use the skills he's learning from the program's job training courses, such as computer training, GED classes, money budgeting and resume writing, and go out on his own.

"I learned that if I wanted to get anywhere in life, I have to work for it," he said.

Doe's founder, George McDonald, understands this need and works to make sure that the trainees leave the one-year program better than when they entered it. After graduating, trainees get help with job placement, have regular check-ins with Doe Fund supervisors and receive a $1,000 grant when they find a job.

These rewards work, according to McDonald. More than 2,000 graduates not only have full-time paying jobs but also their own place to live.

"It matters what happens to our workers after they're out of the program," he said. "The truth of the matter is, the byproduct is cleaner streets, but we really help folks get jobs."

Fitts, who has two daughters living in New Jersey, said that he'd take any job that's offered to him after he graduates from the program in a couple of months, but his dream job would be owning a clothing store. For him, the job not only lets him be his own boss, it lets him continue to help the community.

"Everybody needs clothes man," he said. "I want to help people stay warm."

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