December 25, 2005 | Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune

For some, hard work can be a true blessing 

Umoja is built on the belief that one way to help students do well in school is to teach them to be productive outside of it. The program teaches kids to rehab houses that are sold at a low price to someone in the neighborhood.

Hayes and Doss started working for Umoja as students. "It came as a challenge to me just to be average in school," said Hayes, who grew up as one of 11 kids raised by a single mother. “Without Umoja, I'd just be in the house."

Through Umoja, they learned to build things. Tool boxes. Tissue boxes. Napkin holders. Then walls, floors, roofs--and relationships with helpful people. When Doss, who has learning disabilities, was failing in school, Umoja found him tutors.

Meanwhile, Lila Leff, the effervescent New Yorker who created Umoja, gets tearful when she thinks of what it took for these men to get the chance of employment beyond odd jobs.

"This is truly a miracle holiday story," she said. "But it shouldn't be. This should happen every Tuesday."

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