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The auto body man restored his life and does the same for cars

DADE CITY

Russell Bailey works on the 1978 Ford Thunderbird a little at a time between fixing crashed cars. He is restoring the light teal car to its original condition for its owner, who had the car custom built by Ford Motor Co.

"There were some waves and dents," he said. "But when the car is finished it's going to be right."

Bailey, 47, whose blue eyes shine with pride, is somewhat of a restoration himself.

For years the former foster child battled depression and a host of medical problems, including high blood pressure and complications from an old head injury. He used drugs and alcohol. His marriage failed; he was separated from his three children. He tried to find jobs, but his spotty attendance record would get him fired.

"I just tried to drink the pain away," said Bailey, who now lives in Brooksville.

Then on New Year's Eve of 2007, the man who consumed a case of beer every day hit bottom.

Wasted and alone, sitting on the front porch, he made a decision: "I didn't want to live this way anymore."

Bailey checked himself in at Lighthouse Ministry in Dade City, a residential program for men with substance abuse problems. He went to classes and Bible studies. He and the other men did odd jobs on the grounds.

"If you'd seen the guy when he came, you'd say he's a walking miracle," said Geoff Rutzen, the founder of Lighthouse Ministry and a recovering addict himself.

After completing the 18-month faith-based program, Bailey learned from a friend about a government agency that helps people with disabilities and health problems find jobs.

After contacting the Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, Bailey was assigned to employment specialist Sandra Nicoll, who talked with him about his skills and interests.

"He needed a job where he could work with his hands," Nicoll said. "He had experience in the past working on boats. He didn't have any relevant recent experience to put on a resume, and because of the economy there are too many candidates with recent experience."

Nicoll decided Bailey was the perfect candidate for the division's On-the-Job Training Program. Funded with federal stimulus dollars, it temporarily reimburses employers the full cost of the worker's salary, uniform, and any needed equipment. Since it began, the program has helped 191 people in Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, and Sarasota counties and 886 people statewide.

Nicoll and Bailey drove up and down U.S. 301, stopping at body shops.

Some didn't like the program; others listened but didn't commit.

When they walked into Jarrett Ford in Dade City, collision department manager David Smith was receptive. He started asking Nicoll about Bailey's experience, and Bailey took over the conversation.

Two weeks later, Nicoll said, Bailey was on board.

"He's been very dependable," Smith said. "He gets the job done in a timely manner. He wants me to be happy. He wants the customer to be happy."

Bailey has completed the four-month on-the-job program and now is on Jarrett Ford's payroll. His goal now is to become certified in all areas of auto body repair. Vocational Rehabilitation will pay for his classes and the tools he needs to continue working.

Nicoll said the training program is a godsend for people with disabilities as well as a help to businesses who need workers but have limited resources. The program gives businesses a chance to "try out" the worker with no strings attached.

"If not for the program, (there's) no way I could have gotten his foot in the door at Ford," she said of Bailey.

"I've always wanted to work at a dealership," Bailey said. "Dealership is top of the line."

He has put about 100 hours into restoring the T-Bird. He works on it in between fixing crashed cars.

"The owner said to take my time and do it right," he said.

Now that he's gotten sober and has a steady job and paycheck, he's turning to his personal life.

"I wasn't the father I should have been," he said. His three kids are being raised by grandparents. One daughter is 18 and living on her own. The other girl is 13. Bailey went through a Department of Children and Families program in hopes of gaining custody of his 17-year-old son.

The pair went on a trip to the Weeki Wachee River last week. On Friday, DCF allowed him to live with Bailey. They spent the weekend boating. Now they are getting ready for the son to start a new school.

Bailey has set ground rules.

"We can't live life doing anything we want," he said. "He'll have rules, regulations and chores."

Bailey's supervisor, Smith, believes in his ability to change.

"He wants to turn his life around," he said. "And from what I can see, he's going to do it."

Fast facts

State provides starting points

Florida's Division of Vocational Rehabilitation is committed to helping people with disabilities become part of the workforce.

It receives 79 percent of its $161 million budget from the federal government and 21 percent from the state.

Its employer-focused website, FLJobConnections.com, allows businesses to search at no charge for employees who are ready to go to work, as well as to post available jobs. The agency has 111 offices across Florida, and last year helped more than 8,000 Floridians find or keep a job. From 2004-09 the agency helped 51,774 Floridians with gainful employment. For information, visit www.rehabworks.org or call toll free 1-800-451-4327.

The auto body man restored his life and does the same for cars 08/03/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 3, 2010 8:51pm]
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