by: David Zaslawsky
During a guided tour of the Central Alabama Opportunities Industrialization Center Inc. (OIC), two of the center’s instructors were having a serious discussion with a young man as his father stood by. The center’s president and CEO, Connie Harper, stopped to intervene, telling the young man to stop slouching. “Stand up straight – you’ve got good limbs. Let’s stand up!” The boy did as he was told, never lifting his gaze above the floor. “How are you doing?” Harper asked, and then ordered him to look at her. “Give me some eye contact,” she demanded. Harper was apologetic about the interruption, but made no bones about her belief that the young man was a bright and natural leader – and she was not about to give up on him.
Maybe that’s why Harper was chosen to receive the 2009 Chairman’s Award at the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce’s 137 Annual Meeting. Standing before an audience of 800 Chamber members, elected officials and dignitaries, past Chamber Chairman Daniel Hughes handed her the award. Harper was shocked to say the least, and she did not know what to say. “My husband was just so happy,” Harper recalled. “He said, ‘it was the first time my wife’s mouth was closed.”
The Montgomery community should be thankful she doesn’t remain silent. One of 10 children herself, Harper can’t help but see the potential in every child. “I think we’re going to save him” she said. “I told him you are going to get your act together. We are not going to let you loose. We are going to be on you like a pit bull- you are not going to get away.”
The mission of OIC, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2008, provides job training, job placement and other services to youths up to age 21 who are unemployed, underemployed, unskilled or semi-skilled. The organization also helps youths who dropped out of high school or were expelled to pass the general educational degree (GED) test. That’s what Connie Harper is all about – saving at-risk youths. “We’re getting them into college and we’re getting them into the military,” Harper said.
Tiffany DuBose, executive assistant and education coordinator for OIC, said youths age 16-21 can receive help through the center for up to one year. Staff members routinely assess a youth’s living conditions, sussing out the challenges in their households. The youths also are required to dress properly or they are not allowed in the front door – that means ties for the young men, and no baggy pants. Unfortunately, much of OIC’s time is spent solving problems the youths face outside the classroom. Harper recalled one student who had just one request: lunch. “That is so important to them because they don’t even have food to eat at home,” Harper said.
And speaking of homes, add that to OIC’s mission, as well. The organization has helped build more than ISO homes, which sell for about $95,000. Potential homeowners often are living with their children in shacks or public housing. “I believe that when you have ownership, you have value and you have pride,” Harper said.
The organization first received funding from then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace, and has helped more than 20,000 people. Before the state funding, Harper said Wallace personally gave her two $20 bills. It was the first donation she received, and OIC has come a long way since then.
During a tour of her facility, Harper calls the Early Childhood Development Center “the heart” of OIC. The organization has
about 40 children from ages 2 to 5 and is seeking approval to add IS-month-olds. Some graduates of the early childhood program have become honor students in Montgomery Public Schools.
Harper has received numerous awards and recognition for helping others help themselves. Some of those successful graduates were on hand when she received the Chairman’s Award. “I was speechless,” Harper recalled.