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Off to a fresh start

Program helps adults turn page, begin new lives

Precious Johnson, Venita Qualls, and Henry Hardy graduated from St. Francis House’s Moving Ahead Program at the Union Club in Boston. Precious Johnson, Venita Qualls, and Henry Hardy graduated from St. Francis House’s Moving Ahead Program at the Union Club in Boston. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / November 6, 2010

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Sharply dressed in a dark suit, 87-year-old Henry Hardy strode to the lectern inside the artfully decorated Union Club overlooking Boston Common. In front of floor-to-ceiling windows, he lifted his weathered, heavy hands into the air and spoke with a slight Southern accent as a roomful of people silently clung to his every word.

Last year, Hardy was in prison, finishing a 13-year sentence for a drug-related conviction in Rhode Island. “I came from a church-going family and was taught to stay on the right side, not the left side,’’ he told the crowd of about 100 people. “I stayed on the left side.’’

Hardy is attempting to reinvent himself, and credits the St. Francis House’s Moving Ahead Program with giving him the motivation to use his experiences to counsel at-risk Boston youth. Yesterday afternoon, he and nine other adults, each with stories of drug or alcohol abuse and homelessness, graduated from the 14-week program, the 100th class to do so.

Since 1995, the St. Francis House, New England’s largest day shelter, has administered the program, which accepts a handful of applicants every cycle and teaches them the basics of resume writing, preparing for job interviews, and other skills to help them transition from incarceration, drug dependency, and other problems to self-sufficiency.

The program, which secures housing for and gives a stipend to participants, is intensive. The “students’’ meet from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week. In addition to learning basic computing and other skills, the participants meet with image consultants. They also participate in internships in their field of interest, matched to one of the St. Francis House’s partner organizations, such as the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

More than 1,000 people have graduated from the program, with more than two-thirds of the graduates finding employment within three weeks.

While Hardy has yet to find a job, he is talking with a nonprofit about working as a counselor.

“My whole life, I’ve seen and done a lot, been in a lot of situations that I shouldn’t have. I’ve learned from my mistakes and now I want to help young kids around here who may be into the drugs or crime or gangs, help them to stay away from that life.’’

Fred Smith, director of program development, research, and evaluation, counseled the graduates to look within when embarking on their new lives.

“MAP is all about finding out who you are and what you want to be when you grow up,’’ he said.

He said the program seeks to reach “people who think they can’t make it.’’

Hans Lee, 44, who graduated from the program 12 years ago, told the new graduates that “the Moving Ahead Program can put you on the right path and you can be successful if you stay on that path.’’

In the mid-1990s, Lee, a father of two, was divorced. He began partying with drugs and alcohol, he said. In 1998, Lee was arrested on charges of cocaine possession and put on probation. After failing three drug tests, he was sentenced to two years in jail.

Lee served 60 days, but was ordered to enroll in the Moving Ahead Program. Through the program, he gained an internship with IBM and worked there for six years. He now works as a consultant with nCipher, a Stoneham-based company.

“While I can’t totally say that I would not have been here without the program, it did change my life, gave me something to believe in,’’ he said.

Brian R. Ballou can be reached at BBallou@globe.com.