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Esperas’ first class: Shane Ehlert, Alaina Wharton, and Jeremy Wallace. (GeekWire Photo)

In one week, Jeremy Wallace will graduate from General Assembly‘s full-time, immersive web development course, armed with a set of skills to help him find a job. He’ll also celebrate 20 months of sobriety. Drug addiction led to periods of transience and homelessness for about a year and a half before Wallace decided it was time to turn things around.

“I’d just had enough,” he said. “My family was hurting. My children were hurting. I wasn’t progressing. My patterns and lifestyle, they weren’t satisfying me. I had to do something different.”

Wallace entered into an addiction recovery program at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission (UGM), where he was approached by Stephen Heath, an employment specialist with the non-profit. A local technologist wanted to fund training to prepare homeless men and women for careers in web development. Would he like to join the pilot program?

Jeremy Wallace.
Jeremy Wallace.

It was the perfect opportunity. Wallace was already interested in programming and spent a year teaching himself some of the skills he’d build on during the program. He’s also driven. Although laconic by nature, Wallace lights up when he describes his recent summit of Mt. Adams and the marathons he likes to run.

The pilot program Wallace signed on for eventually developed into Esperas, a non-profit that helps people struggling with homelessness and other issues launch technology careers.

The first year of the Esperas internship is dedicated to intensive training. During that period, the non-profit pays for courses, housing, and basic living expenses. From there, Esperas helps interns find work with technology companies in the Seattle area, while providing ongoing training and support.

“It gives me drive and it gives me a sense of self-accomplishment,” said Wallace. “I would have to say that the UGM and my friends and family and mentors that have guided me into this position have been a bigger part of my sobriety — and God. That’s the catalyst to my sobriety but becoming a programmer is definitely something that’s kept me on the right path.”

As Wallace told his story in a classroom at General Assembly’s downtown Seattle facility, 24-year-old Alaina Wharton worked on her portfolio nearby.

Alaina Wharton.
Alaina Wharton.

Wharton is another member of the three-person Esperas pilot program. She is articulate and self-possessed when discussing her passion for UX design and her history of addiction. Only her girl-like love of the color purple — reflected in her eyeshadow, hoodie, and computer case — betrays how young she is.

“Experiencing addiction at a young age and being able to come out of that, stay sober, and finish school … surprises me,” she said.

Wharton has always loved art but hadn’t considered a creative career in technology before Esperas. She recently completed General Assembly’s full-time immersive UX course and hopes to land a design job for a company like Google or Starbucks one day.

“I worked in Starbucks but it was through Safeway,” she said. “I really like their design and how they seem to treat their employees. Google seems to be one of those companies that likes young minds and fresh ideas and Starbucks seems the same. I like how they keep their quality consistent.”

Three years ago, Wharton was working at Safeway when her life took an unexpected turn. Shane Ehlert, the third intern in the Esperas’ program, became her co-worker and then her boyfriend. Ehlert had been struggling with heroin addiction for several years and “she kind of got pulled in,” he said.

They began living together but weren’t able to hold down steady housing. They moved into the Nickelsville homeless camp in downtown Seattle.

Wharton was living what she calls “a double life.” Sometimes she slept at her parents home in Renton Highlands but her relationship with Ehlert and drug habit made it difficult to stay there long-term. Eventually, she began the Union Gospel Mission’s residential addiction recovery program at the Hope Place Shelter for women.

Meanwhile, Ehlert worked through another UGM detox and recovery program, with Heath as his case manager. Serendipitously, Ehlert told him he was interested in learning web development. Heath brought Ehlert and Wharton on as interns and soon they were working on their sobriety and tech skills together. They plan to get married when they finish the Esperas program.

Wharton shows Heath what she's working on at General Assembly.
Wharton shows Heath what she’s working on at General Assembly.

Heath, who serves as director of Esperas, didn’t set out to create a new organization. But earlier this year, Stephen Fishburn, a technologist from Maple Valley, Wash. approached Heath and UGM with an idea.

“He wanted his company, Get Well Cities, to be involved in doing some training and it kind of evolved into sponsoring them to General Assembly and then helping them get jobs,” said Heath.

As Seattle’s cost of living rises, so do homelessness rates. The technology industry, which draws thousands of high-paid workers to the area, is fueling the economic gap. Fishburn’s initiative is the latest example of technologists working to be part of the solution, not just the problem.

Related: Tech startup GiveSafe has a radical plan to help Seattle’s homeless population

General Assembly provided 33 percent scholarships for the pilot program and Get Well Cities, an app that helps people find healthy places to eat, covered the remaining cost of tuition.

Originally, Heath and Fishburn planned a one-off training program but the success of Wharton, Ehlert, and Wallace encouraged them to take it to the next level. In 2017 Esperas will bring on 12 interns who’ve graduated recovery programs for addiction, homelessness, and domestic violence.

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