Operation Fresh Start provides area youth on the job training, academic resources (video)

About 7,000 Dane County residents received second chances from Operation Fresh Start (OFS) thanks to mentors like Eddie Sherman. Sherman built houses for survivors of Hurricane Katrina and currently works with OFS’ youth participants.

“[Katrina] was an amazing experience,” Sherman said. “Volunteers would come down, and I would teach them how to build houses [for the people who lost their homes].”

After moving to Madison, Sherman knew he wanted to work for another non-profit. One day, while driving with his girlfriend, they spotted an Operation Fresh Start truck. She said, “That looks like a non-profit.”

After doing research, Sherman called OFS and found out it was a non-profit organization, and one that aided individuals with fewer opportunities than most. Operation Fresh Start extends a helping hand to teenagers and adults who may not have finished high school, or have encountered difficulties in life.

The group started 42 years ago when Madison police officer, Jack Osterass decided to get a group of young people together to work on a house.

Sherman started with OFS about six months ago and now supervises about a half dozen young people who came to OFS to learn a trade, and for some to receive high school credit.

“I love this program. I wish I had it when I was their age,” Sherman said.

OFS is able to reach 140 people each year with its available resources. About 200 individuals end up on OFS’ waiting list every year. Those who do participate have the opportunity to work with mentors like Sherman and counselors who help them develop skills needed for the workforce.

“Personally, it’s just good to see where the workers came from and the dedication to changing their lives,” said Gregory Markle, OFS executive director. 

This summer, OFS participants Francine Wade, Jonathan Moore, and Reed Steindach worked on a house on Crestview Drive, Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sherman taught them the proper techniques to get the job done correctly “the first time,” as participant Steindach puts it.

Since February, the group has repaired a garage that nearly collapsed, sawed through the concrete floor of the basement to place a drainage pipe, and ripped apart closets, bathrooms and rooms to prepare the home for the next owners. OFS houses once completed are put up for sale on the open market at affordable prices.

Sherman said of his workers, “This is even more rewarding than [my Katrina] experience because they’re my little brothers and sisters.”

Moore joined the program back in February after realizing Madison East High School did not suit him. In OFS, he now has to complete 900 hours of labor in nine months as does Wade who is also working for high school credit.

“Other than learning to fix your own crib you get good recommendations for college, and future job opportunities,” Moore said. He plans to attend Madison Area Technical College (MATC) to study engineering after completing OFS.

OFS offers students help with their resumes, job applications, interviewing skills and teaches them life skills.

“I learned how to work well with others,” Moore said. “Everyone comes from different backgrounds. Everyone has their own story.”

Wade, who learned of the program through friends and teachers used to skip school and miss classes, but now she has learned how to be committed. After completing the program she plans on attending MATC to study science.

More often than not, students who have graduated from OFS come back to their previous mentors and teachers and give updates on successes in their lives. The participants in the program mentioned developing a familial relationship with each other and Eddie, “a great mentor,” said Moore.

Since its inception over 40 years ago, OFS has grown to benefit the community in more ways, such as offering area youth the chance to work on conservation crews. In addition, OFS helps single mothers and others who just need assistance finding work.

Executive Director Markle hopes that OFS will one day have the means to provide help to more people who have “fallen through the cracks,” he said.

“These are individuals who aren’t connected to the community in which they live,” he said. “They don’t have jobs, no prospects -- don’t understand their role in the community.”

And for those who know people who may need OFS’ services, Markle urges potential participants to approach the organization

“Definitely get in touch with us. There is an interview process. We’d love to have more,” Markle said.