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Nana Bediako unloads donations on the truck dock at St. Vincent de Paul of Contra Costa County in Pittsburg, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013. Bediako, an immigrant from Ghana, is working at St. Vincent de Paul and is training to be a truck driver through their job training program. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)

PITTSBURG -- When Nana Bediako offered to fix a broken door at a free medical clinic that was treating him for high blood pressure, it opened another door for him.

"I always tell people I use my hands a lot. I recently fixed the door that brought me here," said Bediako, a 57-year-old native of Ghana who now lives in Brentwood. "I thought of paying back by fixing the problem."

The volunteer doctor on duty that early fall day at the clinic, which is supported by St. Vincent de Paul of Contra Costa County and the Pittsburg Rotary Club, referred him to a St. Vincent de Paul case worker to help him find work.

Bediako has worked on and off at various construction and carpentry jobs since arriving in the United States 10 years ago. But the gaps in his work history made him a candidate for St. Vincent de Paul's workforce development job-training program, which is geared to people who have not held stable employment for one reason or another.

Not only is Bediako learning how to drive a truck, he is also learning resume writing, communication and interviewing skills, and financial management and goal-setting techniques.

"It (will) show longevity on his resume. This program is a six-month program and Nana's barrier (to long-term employment) is that he had short-term employment," said Melanie Anguay, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul of Contra Costa County.


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St. Vincent de Paul is one of 32 nonprofit agencies participating in the Share the Spirit fundraising program this holiday season. This year, the nonprofit plans to give out 175 holiday gift baskets filled with food, toys and personal care products such as shampoo and conditioner to low-income families, up from 48 the year before, Anguay said.

"Because of the Share the Spirit grant, we were able to increase the number of baskets," and include hygiene products, she said.

St. Vincent de Paul was established in 1964 to provide food, shelter, medical care, job training, clothing, furniture and financial assistance to low-income residents. It operates 27 branches through local Roman Catholic parishes that have 20 food pantries. There are also thrift stores in Pittsburg and Pleasant Hill. Last year, more than 140,000 residents in Contra Costa were helped through the nonprofit's various programs.

Bediako immigrated to the United States in 2003 after losing his carpentry job at Kaiser Aluminum in Tema, a port city in Ghana. The country's unstable power supply led to the plant's closing.

He first stayed with family members in Maryland, but soon left because he did not want to be a financial burden to relatives supporting their own children. So he took a Greyhound bus to Oakland after a friend suggested he could use his carpentry skills to find work in the East Bay.

Work he found but it was not steady. "Jobs were tough to find in those days," said Bediako, who has an infectious giggle that belies his large frame. "Sometimes I would work for two weeks and then for the rest of the month no job."

Over the years, he stayed with various friends in Antioch he had met through the local Ghanaian community while continuing to work a series of short-term jobs.

In 2009, things were looking up for Bediako when he got married and he and his wife moved to Pittsburg.

"(Doris) was really good. She bought most of the power tools I used. Sometimes when I was working in Pittsburg she would come around to look at what I was doing," he said.

The couple planned to buy houses that weren't in good shape, make use of Bediako's skills to fix them up, and then sell them. But his wife died in 2012 from cancer, leaving him to return to the survival pattern he had used before: staying with friends and taking short-term jobs.

Since he enrolled in the job-training program, his carpentry skills have already improved St. Vincent de Paul's thrift store and offices in Pittsburg. He has fixed the faucets in the men's room, the lighting in a conference room and built a reception counter in the thrift store.

"He has done a lot for us," said Barb Hunt, development director at St. Vincent de Paul. "And I think that spirit is going to help him find a job. A lot of employers want someone who is flexible to do more than just the job description."

Bediako is on track to finish the job-training program in February and is grateful for the skills he is learning. But like many immigrants who come to America, he dreams of having his own business.

"I still want to do my home repair thing because that's what I know best," he said. "The truck driving will maybe help me, when I am driving to these jobs in a big way with some lumber from Home Depot."

Contact Eve Mitchell at 925-779-7189. Follow her on Twitter.com/EastCounty_Girl.

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The Share the Spirit campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, benefits nonprofit agencies in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. To help, clip the coupon accompanying this story or go to https://volunteer.truist.com/vccc/donate. Readers with questions, and corporations interested in making large contributions may contact the Volunteer Center of the East Bay, which administers the fund, at 925-472-5760.