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4/13/2006

Feature > Feature

BEFORE AND AFTER
Valencia professors want to change the world, one homeless mind at a time

 

Stephen Davis looks terribly out of place. He's seated at a table inside a café at Valencia Community College's West Campus library. At 45, he's twice as old as most of his fellow students. He's unkempt. His ratty red hair falls down to his shoulders. He wears an oversized T-shirt and torn-up sneakers. He's tall, scrawny and stick-skinny, as if he gets one meal a day.

None of which is entirely unexpected, given Davis' past. Just three years ago, he spent his days digging in trash bins for food, and his nights in a shelter or on a park bench. He was unemployed and homeless.

These days, Davis is doing much better. He's got a place to live and enough to eat. But he still looks the part of a homeless guy. Then he starts talking, and your preconceptions vanish. Davis is smart and articulate. His blue eyes glimmer with intelligence, his hands shake – almost uncontrollably – with excitement. He's eager to tell his story and he wants to talk about the future. He has hope.

And for that, he can thank a little-known, poorly funded program founded by three Valencia Community College professors in 2002 called the Prometheus Project, a grass-roots effort to improve the lives of the homeless not by training them to do a specific job, but by teaching them philosophy. It may sound far-fetched, but Davis is proof that it works.

KIND ACT

It wasn't booze or mental illness that Davis says forced him onto the streets; it was an act of compassion. The downward spiral started in 1997 when he took a leave of absence from his job as a restaurant bookkeeper in Pennsylvania and moved to Orlando to care for a 74-year-old friend he met a decade earlier while stationed at the Naval Training Center.

He intended to stay a week, just long enough for his friend to recover from her minor surgery. Things didn't go as planned. The minor surgery gave way to infection, he says, then to what he calls a "multisystemic whole-body episode."

Davis never left Orlando. He became his friend's caretaker, rarely leaving her bedside until she died at Florida Hospital in May 2001. He stayed with her even as his employment prospects evaporated and his bills mounted. He would get jobs, he says, but he wouldn't keep them long. His friend's illness and loneliness drove him to quit working time after time. But he didn't care; her needs came first.

"The fact that it interrupted my employment mattered not," Davis writes in an e-mail. "The fact that nurses work generally 8- to 12-hour shifts, while I was working 24 hours, mattered not. The fact that nurses start at around $17 an hour and can be paid as much as $30 an hour while I worked for free mattered not."

When his friend died, Davis found himself in an economic vacuum. He wasn't just unemployed; he had a four-year gap in his employment history which made it tougher to land a job, even with the computer technology training he got in the Navy. He had no money and no place to live. By summer 2002, Davis was homeless.

If the weather got cold enough – below 40 degrees – he'd stay in the Salvation Army shelter. If he could scrape together a few bucks, he'd spend the night in the Orlando Union Rescue Mission. If all else failed, he looked for a secluded bench. "To make a long story short, that left me basically where I wasn't in my own space and then finding work was impossible," he says. "I ended up losing everything."

His life changed one Saturday in August 2002. The founder of The Ripple Effect, Kelly Kilpatrick, remembers the day. Davis had joined a crowd of other homeless people waiting for the free meal The Ripple Effect's volunteers dished out at Lake Eola Park. (In 2003, the city forced The Ripple Effect to move to a parking lot underneath the East-West Expressway.) Kilpatrick immediately saw something special in him.

"He seemed very sharp and interested in making positive changes in his life, which we are very big on encouraging," she says. At her urging, Davis became one of the Prometheus Project's first enrollees.

Today Davis is a very different man. Next month, he'll graduate from Valencia with an associate's degree and the college alumni association's Distinguished Graduate Award. He's auditioning as a vocalist for music schools at Florida State and Florida Atlantic universities, where he hopes to receive his bachelor's degree. From there, who knows?

He's also the Prometheus Project's star pupil, the first to not only graduate from the semester-long program, but to go on and earn an associate's degree. He entered the program in 2002 and did exactly what the program's creators hoped he would: continued his education, got a degree and got back on his feet.

In the three and a half years since its inception, the Prometheus Project has helped about 90 students, 48 of whom have gone on to take at least some college courses, says Valencia professor and Prometheus founder John Scolaro. The project is an offshoot of the Clemente Course, a nationwide program that, since 1995, has offered needy students a free taste of the humanities.

But the Prometheus Project is on hold for now. For the last three years, it has subsisted on annual grants of $23,566 from the Florida Humanities Council. In February, the last of those grants expired. The program is on hold as the professors behind it scramble to find funding.

"We've all put in a lot of effort and energy," says professor David Sutton. "We want success. We don't want this to disappear one year because we don't have a grant."

A FREE MEAL

Scolaro first heard about the Prometheus Project's forerunner – the Clemente Course – on the radio a year earlier while driving to a Waffle House. An NPR affiliate was broadcasting an interview with "nonfiction novel" authors, including Earl Shorris, author of a book on the Clemente Course called Riches for the Poor. Shorris began the program in 1995 at Bard College in upstate New York, hoping to introduce disadvantaged and out-of-school adults to the humanities, something Shorris believes is essential to a successful life.

"The idea became to educate poor people rather than teach them or mobilize them," Shorris says.

The inaugural Clemente Course taught 31 students of all backgrounds and races. More than half finished the two-month-long course, and word of the program's success began to spread. Now a decade old, the Clemente Course has circled the globe with classes in Canada, Mexico and Australia. Shorris says a Clemente Course in South Korea may be coming soon.

Scolaro and his colleagues modeled the Prometheus Project – named for the Greek mythological figure who defied Zeus and gave the divine fire of knowledge to mortal man – after Shorris' program. The first class, in October 2002, had 18 homeless students, including Davis.

"My thinking at the time was, I can just sharpen my mind a bit, keep my thinking skills going so that if I get the chance for a good job interview maybe I'd be able to think on my feet better," Davis says. "It ought to be a good exercise; it's only an eight-week program, two hours a night. Short-term goal, so leave it at that."

But he didn't leave it at that. "He joined it and boom," Kilpatrick says. "Immediately after, he got so enthralled with it he decided to go back to school. He's just been like a snowball, gaining momentum through the years."

The free course – the only entrance requirement is the ability to read a newspaper – offered an education centered on philosophy and Plato's teachings. Professors used the Socratic Method – teaching with questions, not answers – to encourage critical thinking, and in the process, boost self-esteem.

"I found that we progressed through literature and raised thought and had discussion that instead of just sharpening my mind, it sharpened my spirit," Davis says. His defining moment came when he realized, "I'm a person of value, and the only one who can erode that away is me."

POSTER CHILD

While he was on the streets Davis felt defeated, like there was no point to doing anything with his life. Forces outside his control had pushed him down this path, he says.

Davis is quite the talker. He speaks quickly, yet pauses ever so slightly to bask in his accomplishments. He ticks off his goals and achievements in a memorized, almost robotic action. All the while he keeps shaking. Talking about the future, his enthusiasm shines through.

Which is why the Valencia professors have made Davis their "poster child." He's a walking, talking, shaking advertisement for the program. Cue spotlight.

"Stephen was the type of student that, from the very first night, you knew he was a special person," says Sutton, the VCC professor. "He came with a thirst for knowledge from the first night."

Sutton remembers lecturing on the Dalai Lama's book Ethics for the New Millennium in one of the project's unofficial classrooms – either the Coalition for the Homeless or the Center for Drug Free Living – when Davis began to sharply debate the book's philosophy. Sutton says it was then that he first noticed Davis' raw, untapped intelligence. But his lack of confidence was also evident.

Scolaro saw the same thing. "He had substance," he says. "Struck me as articulate. He struck a chord in me. He has unlimited potential."

That's not uncommon for Prometheus students, the professors say. Not all of them will end up with degrees, but some of them will tap innate potential. "We have to be really careful not to think that the only success is someone who has gone through college or gone on to receive a doctorate [degree]," Shorris says. "The successes are those people who learned to think and learned to reflect on their life and their actions. Those are the real successes."

"One of the main things that the Clemente project will do is that it will reach people where they are at," Davis says, "whether it is the people who are on the streets or those who might have their little rented room and they're working the minimum-wage job, and it reintroduces the person to themselves. And it will reveal the latent value of the individual, giving them the courage to say, 'I can be the best of what I can be.'"

SCRAPING FOR DOUGH

In February, the Prometheus Project's funding dried up. It had relied on grants from the Florida Humanities Council, a nonprofit that promotes humanities education. The FHC is the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities and gets its money from the NEH, the state and private donors.

The Prometheus Project could ask for another grant, though the FHC discourages it. "There's no limit on how many times an organization can apply for funding," says Susan Lockwood, the FHC's grant director. "But our board does have a tendency to want to be the instigator for these things with the hope that, if we support these things and they're proven beneficial to a community, that other organizations will take over the ongoing support of them."

In other words, it's time for Valencia to foot the bill. And the three professors behind the project – Scolaro, Sutton and Elizabeth Eschbach – agree. The grant money was always a mixed blessing. Without it, of course, the project probably wouldn't have gotten off the ground. But it wasn't enough, the professors say. And it didn't provide the stability needed to grow the project. The need is demonstrably there.

In 2005-2006, 60 students enrolled locally. Thirty-one of them finished the eight-week course. The professors brought the project to five off-campus locations across Central Florida. And for Scolaro, that's just the beginning of his ambitions.

"It's not that we refuse to [seek a grant] again," Scolaro says. "But the object of the project was to disconnect from funding sources and to bring it underneath the umbrella of VCC as a funding source."

Valencia president Sanford Shugart says he's onboard. "We'll be ready to support it when it comes back," he says. "I'm sure we'll be supporting it fully. We love this project."

But Valencia will only buy in once the professors finish putting their proposal together, and then only if the plan passes muster with the board of directors.

"How much money is enough? That's a real important question to raise," Scolaro says. "I don't think we have defined that, per se, at this point. It would obviously be more than $25,000. How much more? Maybe double that."

UNFORTUNATE CIRCUMSTANCES

Davis has seen homelessness from both sides. Once he slept on the streets; now he's vice chairman of The Ripple Effect's board of directors. So he has a unique insight into an issue that has beguiled Orlando's leaders for the last decade. As he notes – and experienced firsthand – the city's policy toward the homeless has always steered toward pushing them aside. That's why Orlando has a ban on new social services in Parramore, why city officials are trying to move the Coalition for the Homeless, why there are blue boxes for panhandlers, and why The Ripple Effect had to stop feeding the homeless in Lake Eola Park.

But Orlando is slowly shifting course. City Hall has talked about a new push for affordable housing, and Mayor Buddy Dyer paid lip service to seeking regional solutions to homelessness in his State of the City address on Feb. 22. It wasn't much of a commitment, but it was something.

Meanwhile, Orange County, the Central Receiving Center and homeless service agencies are working on a plan for a facility that would include a shelter, a treatment center and perhaps a drop-in center – a place for the homeless to go during the day. But the devil will be in the details, as the city and county will have to agree on a location for the center. If history is any guide, that won't be an easy chore.

To Davis, the most important thing is that attitudes need to change. "A word to everyone: Instead of looking at homeless people as some other thing out there, if we can realize these are our fellow citizens, they are our fellow Americans," he says. "Just be courteous, be polite. They're not all just a bunch of wild criminals and drug dealers and people strung out on alcohol. There are a lot of good solid people just in unfortunate circumstances."

Davis now has a small apartment close to the Valencia campus. And while he's not currently employed – he volunteers at The Ripple Effect – he does take in enough money through student loans and grants to cover his rent and food. He spends his time at Valencia, attending classes and finishing up his degree. He researches degree programs in orchestral conducting. And he relishes the fact that he won the school's Alumni Association's Distinguished Graduate Award, an award given at the annual commencement ceremony for "outstanding accomplishments."

"Not bad for a guy from the streets," he says.

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