newton_b_sannon_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

FORT LAUDERDALE —  A Fort Lauderdale-based program that is part of a network helping for years to train needy people to find jobs has become a life-saver to many residents.

Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) of Broward County has the mission to be a leader in providing quality self-help skills and employment opportunities for disadvantaged and underemployed residents of Broward County, assisting them to become productive members of society.

The Rev. Leon Sullivan of Philadelphia started the OIC in 1964 in the  belief that people need an opportunity to earn a living wage, be able to fend for themselves and become self-sufficient, said Newton B. Sannon, president/CEO of the local chapter.

Sullivan “engaged 400 ministers in the community to boycott about 50 businesses that would not hire blacks. He hit them in the pocket,” Sanon said.

When the economic power of the black community was realized, things changed.

“Opportunities for jobs began to open but when blacks arrived at the places of business, it was discovered that they did not have the skills,” said Sannon. “That’s how OIC was formed. It was birthed based on the fact that you could engage businesses to hire our people but our people must have the skills necessary to earn that wage.”

OIC now has 62 offices nationally, with 46 more in OIC International. OIC of Broward County is the only South Florida affiliate. “There are discussions about doing some things in Dade but, as it stands now, we are the only one,” said Sannon.

The Fort Lauderdale affiliate serves residents from the tri-county area. About 25 of its recent graduates are from Miami-Dade County, Sannon said.

The most recent graduates included two men who had been incarcerated.

Truuck Royster has been looking for a job “a really long time” and his heart was breaking because he could not provide for his family.

“I never thought I would be in this position,” said the 38-year-old Fort Lauderdale resident and former inmate. “I had thoughts of suicide. I used to say that the saddest day on earth was the day I was born. But all I needed was an opportunity.”

For Pitston Debonnes, another former inmate, “doors are slammed in your face. People promise you a lot but nothing comes through.”

Debonnes, 39, also of Fort Lauderdale, said the hardest thing was “to look into the eyes of my family and people I hurt. So I had to challenge myself mentally and spiritually in order to find direction.”

Debonnes and Royster have a chance at a brighter future. They were among 190 people who graduated from the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) of Broward County’s 2011 intensive employment readiness-training program during a recent ceremony at the Broward Center of the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale.

“Each person graduating overcame so many obstacles to get in their cap and gown,” Jane Oates, U.S. assistant secretary of labor, said during her commencement speech.

“You all found the strength and courage to accomplish something that a year ago was thought to be impossible. You now know that you all can make a difference,” Oates said.

The average person who visits the OIC office is unemployed or underemployed, and looking for an opportunity to be hired, Sannon said. “Sure, we can tap a few employers that we have good relationships with and really vouch for that individual. They may even get hired. But that person needs the skill to realize the promise we are making to that employer.”

OIC’s primary focus is not to get jobs for the students but to offer them skills that will earn them a wage, Sannon said. “And, in turn, they will not only get that job but be able to maintain and sustain it,” he said.

OIC’s vocational partners are Broward Technical Centers and the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA), Sannon said. “And we are looking to expand that,” he added.

Plans include obtaining certification and accreditation to become a community-based vocational school. “Once we do that, it will provide for more service offerings in terms of vocational opportunities,” said Sannon.

The organization serves about 5,000 people per year, of whom about 2,600 are youth, mostly students aged 14-24. “We review their academic standing so they can begin to have the opportunity to talk about a career… expose them to all kinds of career options,” Sannon said. “We take them on

college tours, teach them how to put together a resume, perform mock interviews… We want to give them exposure, allow them to think about these things early on so later, they won’t come through our reentry programs.”

OIC recruits students from high schools such as South Plantation, Fort Lauderdale, Dillard, Boyd Anderson and Coral Springs.

The program also operates a re-entry program for former inmates.

“With potential employers, we are very frank in communicating the infraction and the level of employability. But the student must communicate with us that they are good and ready,” Sannon said.

Royster, who was incarcerated for seven years, agreed.

“I lost a lot,” he said. “My wife passed away. I lost my kids to the state. There was no family to have my back. But soon after I enrolled [in OIC] I heard those two words: gainful employment. I was ready to change my life and I have.”

Demond Ruise, 34, of Fort Lauderdale described his life as “needing a plan to be reconstructed.”

He too enrolled in the re-entry program and says he is now “empowered with the tools I need for life.

“I am no longer known as 959918, but as Mr. Demond Ruise.”

Former inmates wishing to enroll in the OIC program should call the office at 954-563-3535 and speak to a staff member. The office is located at 3407 N.W. Ninth Ave., Oakland Park.

Cynthia Roby may be reached at

Photo: Newton B. Sannon