Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

Free Tech Program Changes Families’ Lives

LaMonte Rusan was 19 years old and working minimum-wage jobs when he made a life-changing decision: He and his girlfriend, Kia, decided they would take over raising his brother’s two babies.

Rusan’s brother, DeMarco, and his partner had died in a car crash in 2018, leaving behind a 4-month-old infant and an almost 2-year-old toddler.

“I couldn’t say I was exactly ready for kids, but I felt I was mature enough to take on the responsibility,” he said. He said DeMarco used to joke with him, “If you are thinking about having kids, you can have some of mine.”

Kia also wanted to step up. “I can’t let kids just be out there,” she said.

The kids lived with their maternal grandparents for six months after their parents died, then moved in as foster children with Kia, Rusan and his mom in January 2019. Rusan was 19 -- still too young to formally adopt -- so his mother filed the petition.

Rusan and Kia got married later that year, and when his mother gained custody of the children in January 2020, she handed the reins over to the newlyweds.

Rusan had graduated high school in 2017 and started to work right away, hoping to save enough money to one day attend college or vocational school. He had always had an aptitude for computers and enjoyed working with his hands. Now, with two more mouths to feed, he searched for a better-paying job on Indeed.com. He sent in hundreds of applications, but never got a response.

One day, he saw a post for a 16-week technical training program with a guaranteed seven-week internship. It claimed the training was free. He figured there was probably a catch, but he applied anyway.

Much to his surprise, he received a response and an interview. There wasn’t any catch.

St. Louis is one of just eight cities with the NPower job training program for underserved young adults. There are also programs in New York, New Jersey, California, Michigan, Maryland and Texas, and one in Canada. The nonprofit accepts applications year-round from high school graduates between the ages of 18 and 25, and also from veterans, especially focusing on people whose income is near the poverty level. The courses pivoted to virtual instruction because of the pandemic, and NPower plans to continue with that model.

Rusan, now 21, realized that the opportunity could change his family’s life; now, he had to figure out how to carve out four hours each day for the training. Kia found a job as a teacher’s assistant to help with household expenses, and his mother took over child-care duties during the day. Rusan switched to a part-time retail job and picked up food delivery shifts at night.

The program has provided more than training on IT fundamentals -- it’s also offered mentorship and professional development skills, such as preparing a resume. If Rusan had trouble with the course material, he would do research online or ask the instructors for help.

Even before he graduates next month, he’s landed a job as a help desk technician with Midwest Networking in the St. Louis area.

Wendell Covington, executive director of NPower St. Louis, says he sees success stories like Rusan’s in every class. There have been 338 graduates in the St. Louis region since the program began here in 2017. Nearly 80% of students who begin the training complete it and earn the certification.

“We feel we are a game-changer,” Covington said, in terms of disrupting cycles of poverty and creating pathways to economic prosperity for those lacking access to in-demand skills.

The Rusans’ kids are now 3 and 4 years old. The couple says they are working hard to give the kids better opportunities than they had.

“Even though we were so young, we had to grow up so fast,” Rusan said. “I want to allow them to be kids.”