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Vocational Training Program Uses Innovation, Positive Thinking to Create Greener World - 2004-04-07

This story is about a man with a vision to transform the planet. For more than 30 years he has developed vocational training programs that inspire students to make their communities more livable places. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, his latest project is a blueprint for a greener world.

Bill Strickland wants to revive troubled neighborhoods.

"I believe the way you that you revitalize communities and bring people back to life is to take the best practices and best experiences life has got to offer and to provide those to people on a daily basis. So that you live the theory," he explains.

Mr. Strickland runs the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and the Bidwell Training Center - both nationally recognized vocational education facilities located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

This innovative work earned Mr. Strickland the prestigious MacArthur genius award in 1996.

"The idea is to create an environment for students to come here so that they feel hopeful about the day, and that way they can begin to live that hope, not just imagine it," he says.

Bill Strickland builds on hope. He teaches young people how to express their talents in art and music.

The school's main buildings were constructed on the site of a dilapidated row of roadside shops. One building houses studios where students learn pottery and photography.

The art gallery and theater are popular venues for art exhibits and jazz concerts.

Students young and old also study trades that offer diplomas in computer technology, pharmacy, medical transcription and culinary arts. The 400-square-meter Drew Mathieson Center for Horticultural and Agricultural Technology opened in 2003.

The state-of-the-art greenhouse specializes in orchids. Students learn plant culture from the roots up, with courses in plant propagation, specialty crops, and greenhouse management among others.

"Right now we have about 20,000 plants on the floor, and the facility is designed to produce about 60,000 a year," he explains. "That combined with our educational facilities - which are designed to support 30 to 40 students a year - and our small hydroponic lab, where we are producing cluster stem tomatoes, it is a very, very productive facility."

So productive that within a few years, orchid sales are expected to corner the regional market and support the school's horticulture program.

Alice Crozier and Patricia Trenor are both out of work and looking for new careers in midlife. Leaning from ladders, the two tend floor-to-ceiling tomato vines, which are anchored in small boxes or cradles with little dirt.

The high tech buzz is from electric toothbrushes.

Trenor: We get on top of the flower and we vibrate it so that the pollen runs down and fertilizes the flower so that we get beautiful tomatoes.
Skirble: Is this something that you need to do every day?
Trenor: Every single day this has to be done because the tomato will not fertilize itself. So, we have to mechanically do this. Outside honeybees will do this or the wind will do this. But you don't have wind or honeybees in here. So it is up to us.
Skirble: Alice, what did you know about growing hydroponic vegetables?
Crozier: Nothing before I came here. Nothing at all. I think it is fantastic. I love to come here every day and play. I had no idea you could do this with tomatoes. No idea!
Trenor: My background is foods and nutrition and I think that hydroponics is how we are going to grow our food in the future. Land is expensive. Everything is expensive and to grow vertically takes up less space. And this is how our food supply is going to be handled. And, I hope that I can apply what I have learned to an actual situation. It's been hands on. You don't get this hands on experience anywhere else as far as I know.
Crozier: The more ground is taken up with people, the less [land] we have for plants. So this would be the wave of the future.

Overhead an aluminum curtain runs across the glass ceiling to shade the greenhouse.

Two displaced workers, Ada Milliner a nurse, and Sandra Knapper, a long-time corporate assistant, work in the plant laboratory.

They say the six-month program has inspired them to give back to their community.

Ada Milliner: I would like to continue working and volunteering in some manner with education, research, children. I've truly enjoyed that.
Sandra Knapper: It has been a great learning experience for me. I really developed a passion for interior scape and that boosted my confidence and I went out and presented myself to a local florist, one of the best in the city, and I have been there since December 1. Sometime you need a program like this to nurture you.
Milliner: I found that also. It is nurturing and it is a source of hope in which you can grow and it creates a good environment in which to continue to move on.

In the lobby of the horticulture center, Thomas Tibi stands by a landscape he helped create that replicates an Asian rainforest. He says he enjoys his work because it engages both his creativity and plant skills.

"I just want to do this forever," he says. "I could recreate a whole mountain valley if I had the chance. Just give me a bulldozer and a backhoe and a crew of people to help me out, and I'll go to it. I could put an Amazon rain forest in anybody's backyard."

Thomas Tibi says the program has given him the optimism to do just that, which is the vision for living that Bill Strickland hopes to spread from Pittsburgh across the planet.