Tom Eblen: Former University of Kentucky athlete pushes for poverty-fighting program

Herald-Leader Columnist,Tom EblenApril 5, 2014 

Josh Nadzam grew up as the only child of a single mother in a small Pennsylvania town. He hoped to escape poverty, if only he could run fast enough.

But university track coaches weren't impressed. The only school that showed any interest in him was the University of Kentucky, which allowed Nadzam to join its team as a walk-on.

"I just wanted somebody to believe in me," he said. "Not even open the door; just unlock it."

Nadzam borrowed all the money he could and moved to Lexington in 2007. He ran fast enough to earn a full track scholarship after his freshman year.

He became a talented cross-country competitor, but his biggest Southeastern Conference honors were for academics and community service. While earning bachelor's and master's degrees in social work, he co-founded a drive that collected thousands of used shoes for charity.

"I grew up in the projects, a very bad situation, so my dream has always been to help people in similar situations," said Nadzam, 25, recalling how eight childhood friends have died of heroin overdoses.

With his mother's encouragement, Nadzam became an avid reader. "It opened my eyes to the fact that there was something different," he said. "The way I 'got out' was sports, but that won't work for most people."

Then he read Bill Strickland's book, Make the Impossible Possible. Strickland started the Manchester Bidwell Center in Pittsburgh, an award-winning program that fights poverty through arts education for young people and job-training for adults.

"I was just blown away," Nadzam said. "It was like learning about a cure for overcoming a disease."

Strickland, 66, grew up in Pittsburgh's poor Manchester neighborhood and had his life changed by a high-school ceramics teacher. Art's transformative power led him to start the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, an after-school youth arts program, while he was still a college student. Success there led him to be asked in 1971 to run the Bidwell Training Center for displaced workers.

Since then, Manchester Bidwell has blossomed into a major Pittsburgh institution. It has been successfully replicated with locally owned and run centers in eight other cities, which tailor their job-training programs to local markets and needs.

Nadzam drove to Pittsburgh to see the center and met Strickland. Then he drove to see the replications in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Grand Rapids, Mich. "I wondered if I could pull this off in Lexington," he said.

He began early last year gathering supporters for a Manchester Bidwell Replication Project. Then he discovered that others had the same idea. Strickland had inspired several Lexington leaders when he spoke at the Creative Cities Summit here in April 2010. The next month, Commerce Lexington visited Pittsburgh, heard Strickland speak and toured Manchester Bidwell.

The Pittsburgh center's youth arts program includes a ceramics shop, concert hall and commercial recording studio. Adult job-training programs tailored to Pittsburgh produce lab technicians, horticulture specialists and high-end chefs.

A Lexington replication effort never got off the ground in 2010. That was largely because of the expensive, methodical process Strickland insists upon to make sure replication centers succeed. It requires an initial fundraising effort of about $150,000 for a feasibility study to determine local job-training needs and opportunities, partners and buildings that could be renovated for facilities.

Nadzam and Tom Curren, a longtime manufacturing executive who took early retirement, now co-chair a Lexington steering committee of experienced business people and social work professionals. Strickland flew here last May for a kickoff event at the Lyric Theatre. The event was moved from a meeting room to the large theater when 200 people showed up.

So far, the group has raised $38,000 through the Blue Grass Community Foundation to show potential corporate funders that project organizers are serious.

"This isn't the answer to everything," Curren said of the Manchester Bidwell approach. "But it's a program with a proven track record that would really add to the other things going on in town."

When Nadzam isn't at his full-time job at GreenHouse 17, formerly known as the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program, or running, he is focused on fundraising and friend-raising for his Manchester Bidwell dream.

"I want it to be as collaborative as possible, but this is very personal to me," Nadzam said. "When you get out of poverty, it's like surviving an avalanche. This would be my way of thanking Lexington for taking me in."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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