The Student Becomes the Teacher: Mark Alston Trains Workers at His New Job

By Stephen Crupi / Photos by Helen Kinser

Talking with Mark Alston, you could not imagine him being nervous about a job skills training. He confidently engages people in conversation, and he enjoys telling about the story of his life. But Mark insists that when he came to StepUp Durham, he was nervous.

“I had been out of school for so long, and they were giving us homework!” He had been talked into going to StepUp Durham by Fred Stoppelkamp, who is the Workforce Development Manager at Urban Ministries of Durham (UMD) and a current board member for StepUp Durham. But Mark was not very confident when he first came to StepUp’s Workshop.

Mark grew up in Durham, and he lived on Roxboro Street when he was young. After high school, he worked at UNC for over ten years. After leaving UNC, he did a variety of jobs, including working for the City of Durham’s sewer system, brick cutting, and refinishing floors. In 2009, Mark began a custodian role with a facilities management firm where he worked until the company merged with another corporation in 2014.

“I had some issues with [my new employer] about hours and pay,” Mark recalls. “They wanted to reduce the amount I was working and the amount I was getting paid.” Due to the conflict he had with his supervisor, Mark was let go from his job and, as a result, lost his apartment. “I had given up on myself,” Mark states. “It was the first time I had been in this kind of difficult situation.”

Mark has family that lives in the Durham area, but he says that he wanted to get out of his difficulties by himself. “I didn’t want to talk with my family before. I’m a grown man. I got myself into that difficulty, having the conflict with my supervisor, and I was going to get myself out,” says Mark.

So Mark moved into UMD, and it was there that he met Fred Stoppelkamp.

“Fred told me about StepUp, and he told me to give it a try,” Mark states. “And I’m glad that I did. When I came to StepUp, I was nervous and kind of scared, but each day got better. When I looked at the homework, it wasn’t that bad.” But Mark does have a word of caution for people considering StepUp. “If you don’t want it, don’t be there. You got to want it. StepUp is there to help, but you have to help yourself first.”

Mark completed StepUp Durham’s 32-hour Workshop and began to apply for jobs. One opportunity was to return to his former employer, but as Mark puts it, “I had to show my old boss that I had bettered myself in order to get my job back. Urban Ministries helped, and they wrote a letter. Tim [Mark’s StepUp Employment Counselor] wrote a letter, too.”

Mark says that at StepUp’s training he learned how to communicate more professionally in a business setting. Modules on conflict management and effective communication provided new insights on how to interact with people in the workplace. “I learned at StepUp how to deal with my anger, how to address the supervisor respectfully, how to work with my co-workers.”

A month and a half after completing StepUp’s Workshop, Mark was re-employed by the same employer that let him go in 2014. Today, he is working full-time and in a supervisory role.

“I basically train younger people,” Mark states. “I have three people under me. It’s a little rough trying to train people sometimes, but I tell them that they have to work. The job has to get done. You might lose your contract if you don’t get the job done in time. When I first did it, I didn’t know how to do it either.”

In addition to returning to work for his previous employer, Mark has also been offered a position at Wal-Mart. He hopes to be able to work both jobs. “I can take the bus to Wal-Mart. I’ve got to work it out,” Mark states.

Mark has an older son who just retired from the Marines, a younger son who works at Duke in food preparation, and several grandchildren. He says he can see improvement in his family relationships as a result of his more stable employment situation. “Now I can talk with my family. I didn’t want to talk with them before," said Mark. "I feel like I am back to myself now. I go day by day. I’m glad I went to StepUp. StepUp is kind of tough, but you got to apply yourself.”


Stephen Crupi is a Master of Divinity student at Duke Divinity School. He is serving full-time as a summer intern with StepUp Durham.

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