By Princess Safiya Byers Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published Feb 25, 2023 at 10:01 AM

Don Utech and Jim Gaillard first met at a Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope event in 2012.

As they talked, a plan began to form that would work to both of their strengths. The pair wanted to provide residents and people re-entering society from incarceration with the training and tools needed to rehab homes.

Now they lead the Ezekiel Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit that is celebrating 25 years addressing the need for skilled labor and reducing neighborhood blight.

Utech, an entrepreneur in power electronics, serves as president, while Gaillard, the owner of Whire Electrical Services, is the vice president. Both volunteer their time.

Their organization hires minority contractors and creates jobs with family-sustaining wages for unemployed, formerly incarcerated people.

“We didn’t want to be like those programs that train people for a few months and then they leave with new skills and no jobs,” Gaillard said. “So, we train them into a job. We’ll find a project and hire a minority company to fix it, but the caveat is you have to work with one of our trainees.”

Not only does the program teach technical skills, but trainees also learn social and emotional skills as well.

“Some of our trainees come straight from the House of Corrections, so there are some social skills we have to work on,” Utech said. “A big part of this job is building trust with our residents who’ve been screwed over.”

Gaillard draws from his own experience to guide trainees.

“When you are working with people who have experienced so much hardship, you’re sometimes working with people who have a chip on their shoulder,” Gaillard said. “We teach them to take that chip or anger or frustration and channel it into something positive.”

From trainee to trainer

Kevin Freeman, the group’s project manager, started working for Ezekiel in 2018.

“I got a felony when I was young, which made employment hard, so I always tried to do my own thing,” Freeman said. “But by doing this, I get to make a sustainable wage without the risk of being in trouble.”

Since he has been with Ezekiel CDC, he has been able to earn a Lead Supervisor License and gain the skills to become a trainer for his peers.

“More than anything, Don and Jim really commit to understanding people’s barriers and helping overcome them,” he said. “They care about people beyond completing a job.”

DeAndre Patterson started with Ezekiel CDC in April.

“I knew that to do construction I’d have to have transportation to get to each site, but I didn’t have transportation,” Patterson said. “But when they got me on the phone, they let me know that if I could get to the main building, they’d get me to sites.”

He said throughout his training he’s received an abundance of non-job-related help.

“I didn’t have any male influence growing up and was kind of uncomfortable with the idea of being surrounded by them, but they’ve embraced me and never judged me,” he said. “And there have been times I didn’t have child care, and they’d let me work in the office so I could bring my son.”

For Ezekiel CDC, everything boils down to hope.

“When someone is in a situation when their living conditions are dangerous, we’re the ones that come in with our capes and save the day,” Gaillard said. “When someone makes a mistake that has cost them their livelihoods, we make sure they have a chance. When we fix that blighted house on the block, it’s not just about the house, it’s about the community.” 

For more information

For more information on Ezekiel CDC, you can check out its website and Facebook page.