The LIME Foundation’s NextGen Trades Academy Connects Students With Careers

When he was 17, Marcus Hernandez didn’t know which direction he should take after graduating from high school, a familiar anxiety for kids of that age.

College was an option for the Rancho Cotate High School junior, but Marcus wasn’t thrilled about spending more time in the classroom.

“I realized that I really loved working with my hands, and that college wasn’t really a route for me,” he said. “I really wanted to get into construction, but I wasn’t sure how to get into the industry.”

One day in wood shop class, Marcus’ teacher handed him a flier for the NextGen Trades Academy, a new program designed to give young men and women the knowledge and skills to build careers in fields such as construction, roofing, plumbing and more.

Letitia Hanke, the founder and CEO of Santa Rosa-based Alternative Roofing Solutions, Inc., started the academy in 2017, to give young people an alternative to college. The academy itself if part of a larger nonprofit, the LIME foundation, also run by Hanke.

Having overcome childhood racism and sexism in the roofing industry, Hanke wanted to support youth who faced similar adversity.

After signing on for the first academy class, Marcus received training in the proper use of tools, job site safety and how to write a resume and prepare for a job interview.

He also met directly with local contractors, one of whom would eventually hire him out of high school.

Now 24, Marcus owns Empower Building Solutions, a general contracting business he started in 2023 with help from his family.

His mother, Crystal Bowen, owned a solar company bearing a similar business name. Prior to that, she was one of the few women working as a pipe fitter on the Golden Gate Bridge.

“It’s been really exciting,” Marcus said of carrying on the family’s working-class traditions. “One of the best times of my life.”

Years of supporting county youths

The trades academy is a program under the LIME Foundation, the Santa Rosa-based nonprofit Hanke founded in 2015 to bring vocational training to youth, help seniors live more active and healthier lives and connect at-risk youth to music, theater and dance.

Hanke has been the recipient of numerous awards, including The Press Democrat’s North Bay Spirit Award, the North Bay Journal’s Nonprofit Leadership Award and a California Small Business of the Year Award.

But her recognition doesn’t stop there, a photo of her with Gov. Gavin Newsom appears on the Lime Foundation’s website and Hanke has also been featured on the Kelly Clarkson Show as well.

Hanke openly shares the challenges that motivate her to support youth.

When she was five, her family moved from Berkeley to Hidden Valley Lake, where her father, Aaron Turner, had built a home on property he inherited from his dad. At the time, the Turners were among the few Black families residing in the gated community.

“It was supposed to be this beautiful thing,” Hanke recalled. “What they (her parents) didn’t know was how much hatred and racism existed there.”

When Hanke reached middle school, a music teacher encouraged her to learn an instrument, as much to spark an interest in music as to give Hanke an escape from the harassment.

Hanke discovered she had an aptitude for playing the trumpet and singing. After graduating high school and enrolling at Sonoma State University, she flirted with a career in the arts.

But when money got tight, she dropped out of college her senior year and started working as a receptionist for a roofing company.

Paying it forward with support

Working in the trades came naturally to Hanke, whose father was a union pipe fitter. Her mother, Gloria, worked in medical billing.

Hanke quickly worked her way up the ladder, and after four years, the roofing company’s owner asked her if she wanted to purchase the business. Feeling she needed more experience, Hanke did the actual work of repairing and replacing roofs.

Another four years went by.

After earning her roofing contractor’s license in 2004, Hanke finally felt ready to start her own company. But many lending institutions refused to loan her money.

“I was a Black female roofer coming out of nowhere,” she said.

Hanke finally secured the $250,000 business loan with help from the North Bay Black Chamber of Commerce.

But as ARS Roofing grew, Hanke still felt dismissed by some of her fellow contractors. She also detected racism in customers backing out of jobs once they met her in person, or in their refusal to shake her hand.

Hanke pushed past these slights. Her roofing company now employs 24, many of whom have been with her for years, notable for an industry with a high rate of turnover.

Hanke’s message of not letting others define her is one that resonates with many of the youth who are supported through the LIME Foundation.

NextGen academy graduates include those who were cycling in and out of Sonoma County’s juvenile justice system. Hanke said many of these young people were told growing up they would never amount to anything.

“They take our class and realize not only that they have the skills, but how brilliant they are, and how they can do something more positive in the community,” Hanke said.

She described one graduate who is now running a crew for a solar company. Another is working for a restoration business and is engaged to be married, with a baby on the way..

And over the years, the academy has really taken off. The program expanded to Marin County last year, and Hanke said she’s hoping to offer it across California and nationwide.

The nonprofit has a staff of four and an annual budget of more than $900,000 with corporate sponsors like Sonoma Clean Power.

Structure of the trades academy

The academy holds eight classes a year with 15 to 18 graduates in each class. To date, 247 graduates have moved through the program who are 11% female, 76% male and 13% non binary/unspecified. The graduates identify as 3% Asian, 29% White, 49% Hispanic/Latino, 7% African American/Black, 10% multiracial and 2% Native American/Indigenous.

Last year, 51 students graduated from NextGen Trades Academy and the next in-person session will be held at Elsie Allen High School this spring.

Students attend two weekday classes and all-day Saturday sessions during the three-week academy.

One of the more unique sessions features students building and painting birdhouses, in which they plant fresh succulents. The idea is to teach them about eco-friendly vegetation.

The birdhouses are also popular auction items at the LIME Foundation’s annual Believe in the Dream fundraising galas.

At the conclusion of the academy, graduates receive a free set of tools.

Students are not charged to attend the academy. The LIME Foundation covers the entire cost, which is $2,800 per student, according to Hanke who also diverts up to 5% of each roofing job from Alternative Roofing Solutions, Inc., to the foundation. The costs are also covered by donations that go directly to the program.

Elian Hernandez, who has no relation to Marcus, went through the academy as a junior at Petaluma’s Casa Grande High School. At the time, he was working part-time at a grocery store while going to school and trying to figure out his next move after graduation.

Elian is now employed by Hanke’s roofing company. On a recent weekday afternoon, he was with a crew in the city of Sonoma, cleaning gutters from the rooftops of condominiums.

“I wasn’t bad at school,” Elian said. “But ever since I started working, I liked the idea of going somewhere to make money, and making something else of the money, such as investments.”

Building industry relationships that last

Adam Herman, the crew’s 42-year-old foreman from Cloverdale, said he welcomes efforts to boost interest in the trades among young people.

“I graduated high school in 99’,” Herman said. “I took wood shop and metalshop and probably at 15 or 16 years old I was working with my dad doing sign installation. That’s huge, because every little job you learn from here to there is experience you’re building.”

In the trades, relationships matter a lot.

Dorothy Beattie, a Sonoma County real estate agent and president of Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse who has known Hanke for years, recently contacted Hanke to ask if any NextGen academy graduates would be interested in a restoration project at the theater.

Hanke recommended Marcus — with Empower Building Solutions — and Chris Hernandez, who owns Elevated Electric, for the work.

The two men met with Beattie and Hanke at the playhouse recently to go over the work, which is being underwritten with a $16,000 grant from the city of Santa Rosa.

“I just really love the work they are doing, and I love the work we are doing,” Beattie said of the LIME Foundation and the playhouse. “We are sharing the theater with youth, and youth are learning the trades. It’s a beautiful merging of missions.”

As if Hanke weren’t busy enough, she’s planning to expand NextGen with an auto academy this year, and launch a culinary academy in 2025.

She also is planning to move back to Hidden Valley Lake, where she and husbandplan to live next door to Hanke’s parents.

Returning to Lake County would be something of a victory for Hanke, who didn’t let childhood indignities stop her from reaching the heights of a career in the roofing business, and in life.

“I’m an African-American female roofer. Don’t give up,” she said. “Keep on pushing. Don’t stop. That’s the advice I can give right now, and what I have lived every single day of my life.”