By Laura Camby McCaskill
GRANITEVILLE—In 2012, two police officers were killed in the line of duty in Aiken County within six weeks of each other. This brought the community together to find out why—and led to the creation of an organization that helps alleviate issues of poverty and unemployment.
That organization, Megiddo Dream Station, was founded by Kay Benitez, member and music director at Belvedere United Methodist Church, Belvedere.
After the officers’ deaths, the Aiken Standard printed an eight-week series on crime. Benitez was asked to write one of those articles in March 2012.That article, titled “The Correlation between Poverty and Crime,” caught the eye of Weldon Wyatt, a local man with a vision to help others around him.
Wyatt’s vision was to help others by training them to get back into the work force—a mission he had started after the devastating Graniteville train wreck in 2005. After reading Benitez’s article, Wyatt sensed a kindred spirit.
“He told me ‘I believe you’re the person that needs to run the program,’ to run the Dream Station,” Benitez said.
After meeting with each other and after much thought and prayer, Benitez accepted her mission and developed Megiddo Dream Station.
Megiddo Dream Station is a tuition-free, eight-week class that teaches students how to get back into the work force or how to start in the work force. The four-days-a-week class has a strict seven-point system that students must adhere to.
“Essentially, it trains ‘unemployables’ for jobs in the private sector,” said Benitez’s pastor at Belvedere, the Rev. Dick Goldie. “They have a 97 percent placement rate.”
Benitez attributes this strict system as one of the key reasons behind their success.
“Before starting the Dream Station, I did some research on job training programs. These programs only had a 10-12 percent success rate,” Benitez said. “After talking to businesses in the area, I determined that people couldn’t get a interview or keep a job because of three reasons: They didn’t know how to fill out a resume properly, they couldn’t answer difficult questions and they were either late or didn’t show up at all.”
This problem ranged from people holding minimum wage jobs to people with $70,000/year jobs.
Classes held at the Dream Station drill very basic work ethics into students to help them later, which is where the seven-point system comes into play. Students can lose points for a variety of things, such as two points for not coming to class or one point for either leaving early, coming in late or not doing homework. After the student has lost all seven points, he or she is removed from the class.
In the classes, held Monday through Thursday, students are taught a variety of different things designed to help them excel in the workforce. On Mondays, students work on job search skills such as writing resumes, filling out job applications and interviews.
Throughout the eight-week course, students go through four weeks of interviewing techniques, including two weeks of interviewing in front of panels. On the last day of class, they are interviewed by a panel of three to four of their peers in front of an audience of 50-70 people.
“They do it unbelievably well,” Benitez said.
On Tuesdays, students tour different businesses and learn about project management.
“Most students seem to work in crisis mode,” Benitez said. “They need something right then, and when they don’t have the money, they take out loans, some with interest rates of 159-189 percent. The project management teaches them how to plan ahead and save money for bills or projects. They’re taught when it’s appropriate to take out a loan and when it’s not. They learn about their credit score and why it’s important. We also refer them to someone who can help repair their credit, so in a few years they can purchase a house or car.”
On Wednesdays, they have Bible study on “How to be a Godly Man or Woman.” This is the only class in which they’re separated by gender.
“I’ve always said the magic is not in the program. The magic is within that individual that begins to understand they were created for purpose, they have value and that God can turn their ashes into beauty. God says you’re OK—that’s what matters. Let go of the guilt and shame that’s holding you down,” Benitez said.
After all, she said, God managed with Paul, David and Rahab.“He can manage working with anyone coming through the program. A lot of people heard the story of David and Goliath, but not David and Bathsheba.They don’t know the broken David. They don’t know about Saul killing Christians and about Rahab. We include these stories as part of our curriculum.”
Bible study is followed by a finance class and communication class, where students are taught how to talk to their peers or employers through text, email, phone or face-to-face. They also learn about anger management.
Thursday’s class includes a soft skills class and a computer class.
Although tuition is free, books are provided and volunteers teach.Students are expected to do 20 hours of volunteer service.
“This is not a handout,” Benitez said. “It’s a hand-up. We watch them work and give feedback.”
Students may volunteer at a nonprofit or church, but 80-90 percent volunteer at one of the Dream Station facilities. Students may also chose to do 40 hours of volunteer work and graduate with honors.
Graduation is held the second Tuesday in August. There is an attendance of 300-400 at graduations.
“The community really supports them,” Benitez said.
Attendees include congressmen and senators. Students wear white caps, robes, and tassels to graduation.
The Dream Station has had a total of 550 graduates to date.
“When someone hires our graduates, they call and ask to be put on the list for new graduates,” Benitez said.
The Dream Station was visited by the delegation from the Trump administration and was recognized as one of the top three job training programs in the country.
Services are available to anyone, and there are no restrictions. Participants must be willing to work and want to improve their work situation.
“Our real goal is to train them up and get them back to working. (Whether they come from) jail, addiction, job loss, sickness or had children, we just want to help them get back to work,” Benitez said.
For more about the Dream Station: 803-369-6658 or [email protected].
By Laura Camby McCaskill