Around the holidays in 2015 — typically a time for happy memories with loved ones — Will Donlow was laid off from his job, had his car repossessed, and was in the process of getting a divorce. He was at a low point, but after seeing a TV commercial for Save Our Sons, he began to turn his life around.
“Something told me to go, and I went the next day,” Donlow said. “It was like God spoke to me.”
Today, he is a lead electrician and has started a nonprofit to help disadvantaged youth. “I have a clearer head about what I want to do and the resources to do it,” Donlow said. “The program changed what I want to do with my life.”
Responding to a crisis
Save Our Sons, a workforce training program that primarily serves young, economically disadvantaged African American men, is run by the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis Inc. The mission of the Urban League, an affiliate of the National Urban League, is to empower African Americans and others throughout the region to secure economic self-reliance, social equality, and civil rights, according to the organization.
“Save Our Sons was conceived as a direct response to the Ferguson crisis in 2014,” said Michael P. McMillan, president and CEO of the nonprofit. “During the crisis, I spoke with the people protesting, and the No. 1 request was their need for jobs. The SOS program was created and designed to meet the need for employment — especially employment of African Americans.”
The SOS program, which has a goal of helping participants become employable, provides job training that includes financial literacy education and mentoring, as well as assistance with obtaining postsecondary education.
“As the unemployment rate continues to drop, the African American unemployment rate remains at 13 percent, as of January 2017,” McMillan said. “Many of these unemployed individuals mirror participants of the SOS program, with limited education, unemployment, underemployment, or criminal records. However, these individuals can provide a much-needed resource to the St. Louis region. Since its inception, SOS has reached more than 300 people, and 282 have gained employment.”
Wells Fargo has supported the Urban League with a variety of grants since 2008. In November 2014, Wells Fargo awarded the organization a $250,000 grant to support Save Our Sons over two years. Wells Fargo team member volunteers have also facilitated Hands on Banking® financial education classes, reviewed resumes, and helped with mock job interviews.
“We are proud to support SOS,” said Vanessa Cooksey, community relations senior manager for Wells Fargo in St. Louis. “This program aligns with our commitments to diversity and social inclusion and economic empowerment. We have a long-standing relationship with the Urban League in St. Louis, and we believe participants of this program feel respected and have equal access to resources, jobs, and opportunities to succeed.”
Getting ‘interview ready’
SOS participants attend four-week sessions with about 20 people. Donlow attended the classes with his son, who was 2 years old at the time, and the Urban League provided bus tickets so they would have transportation.
The program helped Donlow improve his writing and public speaking skills, he said. Every day, he and other participants wrote and read aloud their reactions to a quote from a philosopher or activist to hone their communication skills. One quote — from Malcolm X — has stayed with Donlow and become his motto: “The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.”
Donlow prepared for his future by researching the companies he got interviews with after the SOS program ended, and networking, which he said was the most valuable thing he learned in the program. “It teaches you to build your brand so people know who you are and what you represent,” Donlow said. “The program gets you interview ready.”
When the SOS program concluded, Donlow was hired as an electrician. Within three months, he received a promotion, and today, he is a lead electrician.
Realizing he could pay it forward and help others, Donlow started the nonprofit Free Your Mind to help disadvantaged youth through public speaking events at juvenile detention centers; working with and mentoring church youth groups; and writing, producing, and creating music about learning math, reading, and science. He also mentors students at a local school. “I had been worried about me and my family,” Donlow said. “But I realized I had a bigger calling and purpose, and could be of help to other men.”
Before the SOS program, Donlow had a hard time finding a job, especially one with room for growth and promotion. Today, Donlow is successful in his career, and he feels he is a better father, communicator, and citizen, because of SOS. “Now I know I’m able to help people,” he said. “I’m able to direct them to resources like the SOS program that I know work.”