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Helping of hope


When Cornelius Ford, who hasn't worked since April, sits down with his three children this Thursday for dinner in Selma, Ala., Michael Johnson is near the top of his list.

"Thank you. Thank you to Michael Johnson, his mother and father, and anyone else who had anything to do with the program," Ford says. "I'm looking forward to the future. This is a real opportunity. I soaked up everything I could. There are a lot of people like me in this city and this is going to give them the opportunity to grow."

Johnson, the Bengals right end, may be the club's franchise player tagged for this season. But in his home of Dallas County, he is one of the keys to a franchise that has come so far and still has miles and millions to go hard in 'Bama's Black Belt.

Keys like Kay Ivey, who grew up in the next county over in Wilcox and taught school and worked in a bank on the way to becoming lieutenant governor. Two weeks ago she not only came to Selma to honor Ford and five others who are the first graduates of the MJ93 Foundation's Microsoft Certification Program, she also made Johnson lieutenant governor for a day.

"I just don't give those out," Ivey says. "I'm sort of stingy with the individuals I select to make that presentation. Obviously lieutenant governor is a very important office in our state and I do my best to give it credit and honor and I'm real proud of what Michael is doing."

There was a time in Alabama, and not all that long ago when Ivey attended classes at Auburn, the appointment of a 26-year-old African-American to the ceremonial post of Lieutenant Governor For a Day by the 69-year-old white female Lieutenant Governor herself would have been, well, let's just say the news wouldn't have been reserved for a press release in a sleepy Thanksgiving week. It would have topped off either every news cycle or the fiction bestseller list.

But Johnson and Ivey have clicked way past those days and are fixed on a future where technology rules. As Ivey notes, "Alabama is on the move" with the arrival of Airbus in Mobile earlier this year and the influx of automotive manufacturing that has helped cut the unemployment rate to 6.5 percent.

But their native Black Belt is behind, particularly in the microchip race in the region named for the farming topsoil that blankets the 18 counties between Selma and Montgomery.

"We're way behind. We still have places that don't use computers; it's amazing," Ford says. "There's a high demand for technicians as far as schools and businesses."

That was the idea behind the program, an outgrowth of Johnson's football camp last spring, where Microsoft put on a workshop for the city's children. The program, which ran from July 1 - Nov. 14, cost $3,400 per student and preps them to become computer technicians with IT skills. As part of the class, they were also given laptops and other materials and Johnson picked up the tab for everything.

"It was a great program because they brought in someone who could apply it to real life; it was easy to understand," Ford says. "In the next seven to nine days I'm going to take a test to be certified by the state to be a computer technician. They gave us a computer we can break down. Before this program, I didn't know anything about computers. I could surf the Internet and that was about it.

"Now I can put one back together. I can fix them, upgrade them. I can take out the mother board, take out the power supply, the hard drive, the CD drive and put it all back together. I know what a network cord is. A network card. Slip 'n slide. How many people in Selma could afford to take a course like this? Not many."

Ford, 30, left his kids to go all the way up north to Huntsville, Ala., to find a job as a cook at the beginning of this year because he couldn't find work in Selma. Before that, he had been a temp in a paper mill just outside Selma and got laid off. Then he had to come back in April when the restaurant went out of business.

"To get a job around here, you have to know somebody," Ford says, and that's how he found out about the program.

He heard about it from an uncle and it turns out that another uncle, Rufus Ford, taught the course.

"He told me to be there at 8 a.m. on July 1 and I haven't looked back," Cornelius Ford says. "Three days a week. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It was my chance to do something with my life."

It's just the kind of moment that made the trip back home worthwhile for Ivey.

"It's a fine program and it's well needed in the Selma area," Ivey says. "We know technology and the computer industry grows four times faster than any other segment of industry. It's very timely and worthy that these skills are focused in that area and for Michael to provide this training for them is just huge. It's a great example of those of us who were raised in the Black Belt. We know the importance of doing your very best at all times and helping those around you."

Johnson is on the same ticket with Ivey when it comes to giving back.

"Everyone knows when I'm done playing I'm going back home to Selma," Johnson says. "Whatever I can do to help make the community better. It's about change. I thank the people who took the course. They're the ones that did the work and stuck with it. And there are going to be more of these courses on the way.

"As professional athletes, we have a platform to do so many things. Why don't you start in your hometown area with the people who groomed you and raised you?"

But politics? After all, he's already served a day in the second highest office in the land that stretches beyond the Black Belt.

"I wouldn't rule it out," Johnson says. "But I would only do it if I thought that was the only way I could get even more accomplished. If I needed to make some changes, I would do it. But if I could stay behind the scenes like I do now, I'm cool with that."

They have yet to meet. Ivey did spend time with Johnson's parents at the presentation and came away like everybody else impressed with the family's ideals and execution.

"I haven't a clue," Ivey says when asked if Johnson has a future in politics. "But I'd sure welcome him. He'd be a credit to public service anywhere he might choose it."

But for the moment, the only thing Johnson is legislating is hope. And for a guy sitting down with his three kids Thursday, that is a helping of everything.

"Now it's not a matter if I can get a job," Cornelius Ford says. "Now, it's more like when and where."

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