The non-profit agency states that it "helps welfare recipients and other low-income workers transition into jobs that pay well above minimum wage and can lead to economic self-sufficiency." That's boilerplate but bang-on. OPTIC is run by the irrepressible Alissa Friedman and a big bunch of supportive and talented teachers and other staff.
"You helped me get back into the job market," Buchanan told Friedman recently. She responded that they are always glad that he comes back to help instruct others in getting jobs in the technology information field.
Students in the OPTIC program often have similar stories, yet each is different. These are people, not numbers, or types, whom they help.
Buchanan tells no story of being from a hard ghetto. He was raised in Albany, N.Y., a place he said is the best place there is to raise kids: "I had a great childhood." His father was a foreman on the Penn Central Railroad and his mother was a school crossing guard. She helped him cross the street, it was her job, and he held on to her and cried, he said.
So he went through the school system in Albany, some college, some trouble getting financial aid, some dropping out, and a lot of factors that add up to what is not far from happening to any of us.
He ended up in San Francisco, had some jobs he liked, had some he didn't like. In one he did like, he overcame his computer phobia and had a good job with an engineering company doing mechanical drawing.
His mom died. The company in which he was thriving unexpectedly went out of business. The dot.com rental boom in San Francisco was pricing him out of decent apartments as he went from part-time job to part-time job. He moved in with his sister in Pittsburg to help her raise her kids.
But he was at low ebb and very discouraged. Then he and OPTIC found each other. He took the classes that gave him new computer skills and improved on the ones he came in with - but the big deal was the life skills and the supportive atmosphere.
"I've been helped along the way and met some pretty good people. I'm a survivor." He now has a job as an aide at a Pittsburg elementary school and lives in Clayton. This 47-year-old does not drive a car, and to get to work takes BART and two buses.
He works in special education, which he said he likes but which can be very difficult. "You have to have a very positive attitude to do that," he said. Buchanan talks of an autistic student who goes into a place where it seems "like something is eating at her."
Speaking about his jobs at both the elementary school and OPTIC, he said, "If I have an opportunity to help, I will."
The students have quite a range of knowledge, he said. "Some of them don't even know how to turn it on." And some of them are more advanced. There is a program that allows them to learn touch-typing, "Which I never learned, but one-handed I can type 35 words a minute."
Mostly, it's learning fundamentals, such as how to use the mouse. What they need in addition to the technical skills is the caring and the knowledge and the feeling of someone like Donald Buchanan who has been there and done it.
About OPTIC, Friedman said, "… there are over one hundred Contra Costa families that are now headed by mothers or fathers who are experiencing success and stability in their lives where they may never have had that before."
OPTIC, which is located at 3102 Delta Fair Blvd., has recently started a term of classes and next will be recruiting in late fall. For more information, call 776-1133 or go to www.optic-cc.org.