- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2003

Staff writer Denise Barnes interviewed Michael J. Cortese, project manager for A Chance to Work and an information officer for the International Finance Corp. (IFC).

Question: What is A Chance to Work about and whom does it help?

Answer: It’s about giving disadvantaged people an opportunity to get back into the mainstream — it’s a hand up, not a handout.

We partner with homeless shelters in the metropolitan area, which include the Gospel Rescue Ministries, the Salvation Army, Central Union Mission and many others that serve the homeless in the inner city. Usually, homeless people in these cases enter rehab programs. Those who excel earn a chance to work, and they come and work in the legal department of the IFC. Some then go on to work at other private-sector companies, such as law firms, hotels, beauty salons, retail stores, and sometimes they are hired full-time at IFC and at the World Bank Group.

Q: How many people has the organization placed so far?

A: We’ve helped place people in over 100 jobs, and that includes what we’ve been doing in other countries.

A Chance to Work is a win-win-win situation, because it not only helps participants in the program, it gives employers dedicated workers and allows them to take social responsibility in their communities. And we’ve also found that it improves the workplace environment, because staff members have an opportunity to interact with people from diverse backgrounds and see the human spirit at work. Once people start interacting with one another in the workplace, they find out that they are not that different from one another.

Q: Who served as the inspiration for this program?

A: This all came about because of Jennifer A. Sullivan, the general counsel of IFC. The two of us talked about wanting to do more in the community, especially with people from different socioeconomic groups. Jennifer had been connected with Gospel Rescue Ministries in Northwest for a while, and she suggested that the legal department serve as a training ground to help others to get back in the work force.

As Jennifer says, one of the best ways to break the cycle of homelessness is to provide a person a chance to work. With a job and a paycheck in hand, a transformation begins.

Basically, the program entails bringing disadvantaged people into the legal department to work. Their duties include data entry, filing, sending faxes and general office-support work. That was the idea — and, of course, we established a support group for the participants in the program.

Our first participant [in 1997] didn’t make it; he had a relapse. But after that experience, we learned and improved our screening process with the mission, and we haven’t had any of our participants suffer a relapse in years.

Q: Does the program only operate in the District?

A: No. We launched a program in Cairo, Egypt, last October through a partnership with USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] and Liz Cheney [daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney].

Liz used to work as an attorney in our legal department before moving to State [Department]. She and Jennifer really took the lead in getting the partnership off the ground, with assistance from World Bank President James Wolfensohn and Executive Vice President Peter Woicke.

USAID provided funds for micro-lending. We established the Lead Foundation in Cairo to administer A Chance to Work program. In June, an IFC mission team will travel to Moscow to assess the feasibility of launching a pilot there.

The model in Cairo is somewhat different than it is here. We help people obtain internships because we learned that they needed certified plumbers and with a little bit of training, they could learn the skills needed to do plumbing and automotive body work. The main person who helped us in Egypt was Mohamed Mansour, president of the Mansour Group.

Q: Do you host events for participants in the program to applaud their efforts in turning their lives around?

A: Yes, we do. Mr. Wolfensohn hosts an annual luncheon for the participants in the program that’s held in his dining room at the World Bank main complex. He breaks with protocol and has the participants seated next to him, rather than vice presidents who would normally be seated next to him. He makes participants feel at ease and engages them in conversation. He’s a man of passion, energy and vision who is able to talk to anyone at any level. He’s real. Our participants would say, “he walks the talk,” and genuinely cares about them.

Q: Tell me about a few of your successes over the years.

A: We’ve had quite a few. One person I would like to mention is John Pendleton — he not only came to IFC’s Legal Records Department, but he has now taken over the files in the Environment Department and has been able to take on two additional people who were working in IFC Legal and transitioned to his department.

Mr. Pendleton was a extremely successful businessman before he developed a drug addiction. He lost everything, and, as a result of entering the program at Gospel Rescue Ministries, he was able to pull his life back together. He’s been at IFC for about three years as a full-time staff member.

Q: What do you need to make this program continue to succeed?

A: I need business people who have jobs — business partners who have jobs and want dedicated workers, because these are serious people who want to get their lives together. They want to get back into the mainstream. Anyone who wants to take a chance and make a difference in someone’s life — is looking for dedicated employees — and wants to take social responsibility for their community, should give me a call.

mTo contact Community Forum, call 202/636-3210 or e-mail dbarn[email protected]washingtontimes.com.

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