- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 6, 2005

Cheryl Queen was all smiles when she graduated from a three-week job-training and life-skills course in June at Strive DC, a District-based nonprofit group.

“This program has really helped me deal with some difficult issues. It’s helped me spiritually and psychologically,” says the 34-year-old single mother of four.

Strive DC aims to help low-income adults rebuild their lives through job training and placement as well as life-skills lessons.

“I feel better about myself, and I am getting ready to apply for a couple of jobs,” says Ms. Queen, who hasn’t worked for three years.

Strive DC is one of about 600 groups in the Greater Washington area that offer job training to low-income adults, says Summer Spencer, executive director of Workforce Organizations for Regional Collaboration (WORC), a nonprofit organization in the District.

“I think job-training programs can be very successful if employers’ needs are considered,” Ms. Spencer says. “There’s no use having programs if we’re not meeting those needs.”

WORC is a liaison between nonprofit groups that provide job training and prospective employers.

WORC assesses the marketplace to see what fields — such as information technology, health care and hospitality — have the greatest need for employees, Ms. Spencer says.

John Iceland, associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park, says there is no conclusive research or evidence on whether these types of job-training programs work.

“I would say, in general, they have a modest positive effect,” says Mr. Iceland, author of “Poverty in America.”

Various groups say their job placement rates are very high. Strive DC, for example, reports that 80 percent of its graduates are placed in jobs. About 250 people graduate each year. DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit group that serves food and offers a culinary-arts job-training program to low-income residents, reports that more than 90 percent of its program participants get jobs upon graduation.

Nancy Conley, a social worker with Capitol Hill Group Ministries, says another important aspect of helping people with few economic resources rebuild their lives is to instill them with hope and faith.

“Many people feel their lives are so bleak that there is no way out,” Ms. Conley says. “No one has ever told them, ‘You can do anything you want.’ … They need help setting goals, believing in themselves,” she says.

Capitol Hill Group Ministries is a group of churches on Capitol Hill that do outreach work to help poor people get back on their feet. Their services include counseling, food distribution and clothing. They also have a shelter.

Strive DC emphasizes improving participants’ self-confidence, says Carlton Bradshaw, an instructor at Strive DC.

“Most of them don’t believe they belong, they don’t believe they’re worthy of success,” says Mr. Bradshaw who, himself, graduated from the program in 2000. “They have very, very low self-esteem.”

During the three-week Strive DC course, one of the exercises is to find and write down something self-affirming. Participants also have to write down short- and long-term goals.

Yolanda Owensby, 30, who also graduated from Strive DC in June, says she learned she was much stronger than she had thought.

“I learned that if someone pushes me down, I will be able to get back up. It’s comforting to know that,” says Ms. Owensby, also a single mother of four.

Ms. Owensby says she hopes the self-confidence Strive DC has helped her achieve will be an inspiration for her children.

“I want them to be able to look at me and say, ‘I am going to be strong, because my mommy was so strong even when life was so hard,’” she says.

She says the program also has helped her become a better communicator whether in relation to her children or to a prospective employer.

“I used to snap really easily, but I have learned how to overlook and respond to remarks that can be hurtful,” she says. “I try to ‘kill people with kindness.’ It makes me feel good.”

Another important aspect of any job-training program, Mr. Iceland says, is access to what’s sometimes referred to as “wraparound” services.

“This population often needs help with affordable child care, transportation and, to some extent, health care,” Mr. Iceland says.

Health care needs often revolve around substance abuse and depression. Many nonprofits that offer job training can give referrals to substance-abuse treatment centers and mental health counseling.

Wraparound services

Ms. Spencer agrees that these services are very important and says her group helps people obtain child care vouchers from the District of Columbia Health and Human Services Department or its counterpart where the job applicant lives.

WORC also helps with transportation issues, as does Strive DC, which provides free Metro tokens.

Ms. Queen says she has taken advantage of the free tokens to get to job interviews, but at the end of last month, she was still looking for a job.

“It’s very discouraging. It’s hard for me to keep a positive outlook,” she said during a recent phone interview.

She says she wishes Strive DC reached out more to past graduates than with the one “checking-in” phone call a month she has received. However, she also acknowledges that part of her challenge in getting a job has to do with her past — she has a felony conviction for shoplifting.

“But it happened eight years ago. I paid a $1,500 fine, and that was that,” she says.

Ms. Spencer says many companies will not consider applicants with criminal pasts, but her group works with employers that do hire people with misdemeanors and certain felonies.

“It’s not something that employers advertise, but there are some who are willing to work with you, and we could certainly help place someone with that kind of background,” she says.

Ms. Queen says that even though she still doesn’t have a job, her experience at Strive DC was well worthwhile.

“It helped me start healing — I was sexually abused between 7 and 17, and Strive DC helped me be honest about what happened,” she says. “I don’t feel like I have to hide it anymore.”

Ms. Queen also says that facing her past — acknowledging the good and the bad — helped her become a better parent.

“I am learning how to say ‘I love you,’ to my kids. I am starting to give them hugs,” she says. “My mother never hugged me.”

Mr. Bradshaw knows how liberating honesty can be. When he came to Strive DC in 2000, the nonprofit was housed in Southeast in a building with which he was well-acquainted. The organization has since moved.

“It was crack house. It was where I used to come and smoke crack,” he says, adding that he has been drug-free for 16 years. “I have no problem sharing my story if I think it can help someone,” he says.

It often does, he says. It helps instill people with hope that there is a way out, he says.

“That’s the only way I can inspire people to change,” he says. “I can’t give them the latest research from Yale or Harvard, but I can tell them my story. And I often get, ‘If Mr. Bradshaw can do it, I can do it too,’” he says.

Escaping poverty

As bleak as it can seem, there are ways — including job-training programs and education — out of poverty, Mr. Iceland says.

“Only about 10 percent remain poor throughout their lives,” he says. “Some people cycle in and out of poverty, but most people who become poor don’t stay poor.”

This has been true for Mr. Bradshaw, who in the late ‘80s was homeless, and Ms. Owensby and Ms. Queen, who are both widows.

Ms. Owensby says she and her four children were doing fine financially until her husband died of thyroid cancer five years ago. Now, she collects $1,400 a month in Social Security to cover all expenses for her and her children, who were temporarily taken away from her after she used excessive force when disciplining them.

Ms. Queen says that while she was an office manager at a printing company, she made good money and was making contributions to a 401(k) plan and other investments.

“I had about over $60,000 saved up, but I have nothing left,” she says. “I feel bad for my children. I can’t get them the clothes and games they want.”

She also has been collecting Social Security since her husband’s death in a traffic accident in the early ‘90s. Her church often helps her pay the $1,061 monthly mortgage payment on her Capitol Heights house.

She says going through the job- and life-skills training was as much about her as about her children.

“I don’t want them to see me depressed, not getting out of bed,” she says. “I feel like we had a good life, but I failed them. I want to get my — our — lives back on track.”

Ms. Owensby lives in subsidized housing off Benning Road in Northeast.

Both families are well below the poverty line, which is $22,199 for a family of five, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s poverty thresholds for 2004.

While job-training programs can be helpful, one of the most important factors in moving people out of poverty is education, says Clyde Woods, assistant professor of African American studies at the University of Maryland at College Park.

“All these job programs are good,” he says. “They help people map out life plans, goals. … But education is even more important. The benefits of education last more than one generation,” he says.

His colleague Mr. Iceland agrees.

“People who don’t finish high school are most likely to be poor,” he says.

The percentage of poor people among those 24 and older who didn’t finish high school is 22.2 percent nationally. Of those who finished high school, it’s 9.2 percent; and among college graduates, the percentage who are poor is 3.2 percent.

Poverty numbers generally are higher among minorities and people in urban and rural communities, he says. Suburbs have the lowest poverty rates, he says.

“There is definitely a premium on highly educated people,” Mr. Iceland says.

Ms. Owensby, who doesn’t have a job yet, says she’s working on getting her GED. She got pregnant and never finished high school.

Getting an education and/or a job also provides a good role model for children, Ms. Spencer says.

“I think it makes a huge impact,” she says. “I think kids need to see a role model — a parent who is not just providing for the family, but who is contributing to the community.”

Ms. Queen, who says she got her college degree while working full time, says she tries to be a role model for her children.

“It’s hard now since I don’t have a job,” she says. “But I tell them that if I was able to get a bachelor’s degree while working full time and taking care of them, they have no excuse not to do well in school.”

More info:

Nonprofit organizations and faith-based groups in the Greater Washington area that provide job training and related services:

• Strive DC Inc., 715 I St. NE, Washington, DC 20002. Phone: 202/484-1264. This nonprofit organization provides free job-readiness training and job search assistance to the unemployed. It covers topics such as communication skills within the work environment, appropriate dress and setting short-term and long-term career goals. It also offers up to two years of post-placement support. There also is a Strive office in Baltimore, 3002 Druid Park Drive, Baltimore, MD 21215. Phone: 410/367-5691.

• Workforce Organization for Regional Collaboration (WORC), 1725 I Street NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20006. Phone: 202/857-5991. Web site: www.worconline.org. This nonprofit organization acts as a liaison among potential employers and other nonprofit groups that offer job training to the unemployed. WORC also can help job seekers find child care and get transportation vouchers. WORC covers Greater Washington. Its Web site lists more than 100 groups that provide job training.

• Bread for the City, 1525 Seventh St. NW, Washington, DC 20001. Phone: 202/265-2400. Web site: www.breadforthecity.org. This nonprofit organization offers free workshops on job-interview skills and provides other job-search assistance to low-income residents.

• Suited for Change, 1712 I St. NW, Suite B100, Washington, DC 20006. Phone: 202/293-0351. Web site: www.suitedforchange.org. This nonprofit organization offers free professional clothing and ongoing career education to low-income women. The group provides services to women from Virginia, Maryland and the District.

• Goodwill Greater Washington, 2200 South Dakota Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20018. Phone: 202/636-4225. Web site: www.dcgoodwill.org. This nonprofit organization offers extensive job training and employment services. Goodwill also provides help with job placement and retention by checking in frequently with the new employee. The group can provide referrals to other nonprofit groups for services such as child care and transportation.

• SOME (So Others Might Eat), 71 O St. NW, Washington, DC 20001. Phone: 202/797-8806. Web site: www.some.org. This nonprofit group offers job training to the homeless and the extremely low-income along with services such as free medical care, showers, food and shelters.

• DC Central Kitchen, 425 Second St. NW, Washington, DC 20001. Phone: 202/234-0707. Web site: www.dccentralkitchen.org. This nonprofit group, which distributes free food to the needy, has a culinary arts job-training program that prepares unemployed and homeless adults for jobs in the food-service industry. It says it has a 91 percent job-placement rate upon graduation.

• Catholic Charities, 924 G St. NW, Washington, DC 20001. Phone: 202/772-4300. Web site: www.catholiccharitiesdc.org. This faith-based organization provides job and life-skills training. It has offices in the District and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Volunteering opportunities:

• Greater DC Cares, 1725 I St. NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20006. Phone: 202/777-4440. Web site: www.dc-cares.org. This nonprofit group is a liaison between people who want to volunteer and the hundreds of nonprofits that need their help.

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