WATCH: Meet the latest batch of SOAR graduates

Posted at 7:14 PM, Sep 17, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-17 19:14:41-04

CINCINNATI -- Ahmad Harvey never imagined he'd get a standing ovation.

At just 19, he's the youngest among a crop of recruits in the Solid Opportunities for Advancement and Retention program, a workforce development initiative from the Greater Cincinnati Urban League.

As part of Mayor John Cranley's Hand Up plan to reduce poverty, the city of Cincinnati channeled an extra $250,000 to the Urban League so it could expand SOAR and reach people in need beyond the organization's Avondale headquarters.

Harvey and Thursday's other graduates in Walnut Hills didn't come from a trade school; many of them didn't graduate from high school. They were recruited from the streets, where they'd been committing crimes like drug dealing and prostitution.

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"I was stealing cars, I was robbing people," Harvey said.

When he was selling drugs, Harvey aid, a man dressed in a suit and tie walked up to him.

"He said, 'Man, I did everything you're doing right now.' He said 'Do you really want to keep doing this in life?' I had to think about. I said 'No, my brother just died a month ago,'" Harvey recalled.

Like Harvey, Amy Harlow was headed down a dangerous path when the same man -- Lonell Roberts from the Urban League -- walked up to her. At the time, Harlow said, she was high on crack.

"He was like, 'Do you want to know about a job?'" she said.

Recruits undergo and intensive three-week training program.

"They receive skills in conflict resolution, on-the-job communication, how to do an application properly, how to interview," said Greg Walker, with the Urban League.

Walker also said the Urban League seeks out people others won't touch because, oftentimes, criminals are viewed as role models in some neighborhoods. If they become productive members of society, the thinking goes, others will follow.

According to Walker, 81 percent of graduates get jobs -- but more importantly, they're empowered to see themselves as successful.

Harlow is looking at home health care; Harvey has his eyes on international business. To keep himself from backsliding, Harvey keeps a picture his brother who was killed dealing drugs.

"I look at the picture, and I think, why did he die?" Harvey said.