In my early teens, my parents went through a troubling divorce. My mother had to take care of three children. I was quickly approaching to enter college and my teenage brother had just had a baby – his girlfriend and my niece living under our roof. My mom was making a little over $ 700 every two weeks as a mortgage preparer. In a moment of desperation, she turned to a payday loan company in hopes of finding a solution to keep our family afloat. “You must be quite helpless,” she said. She would write a check for $ 575.00, and the company would keep the check for two weeks, but give her $ 500 immediately – basically, she paid a fee of $ 75, or about 13% interest. My mother continued to do this for over eight years. That’s about $ 15,000 in interest – a vicious cycle. It was only after climbing the ranks in her profession and remarrying a few years later, becoming a two-earner family, that she was able to pay.
“I didn’t know what else to do, so I did what I had to do,” my wonderful mom told me.
Now there is help for people like my mother: a federal and state funded program in Louisville run by Goodwill Industries of Kentucky and administered by KentuckianaWorks called Power of Work.
Power of Work is a free four-week course in which participants are enrolled upon recommendation from the Department of Community Services. The course teaches soft skills such as financial literacy and job preparation, with the aim of helping people lift themselves out of poverty and gain the skills they need to be financially secure. The demographics are quite diverse, including people who have had a traumatic past, people experiencing poverty, and people with criminal histories. Some students do not have their GED, and others have their masters. What they all have in common is that they are looking for a way to deal with their financial difficulties. The program is tailored to the needs and goals of each individual, so they are given the tools they need to be successful.
When I explained the program to my mother, as we were discussing all the sacrifices she made, she said, “What a difference it would have made for us.”
Alyssia Jones, Career Coach at KentuckianaWorks, is in charge of the Power of Work program as part of her role as a facilitator of employment preparation activities, a position funded by GWI.
“We’re actually focusing on the holistic approach to rebuilding our participants,” Jones said. “We provide them with financial literacy, survival skills, making sure they understand the skills necessary not only to get but also to keep a job, and not just in a fast food restaurant.” Jones said there’s nothing wrong with working in fast food, but maybe the students have bigger ambitions. She said she wanted to empower her students to dig deep and even dismantle their own beliefs about what they can accomplish.
Each week in Power of Work classes, students deepen a variety of skills, including resume writing, tackling debt (like the dangers of payday loans), and understanding the power of savings (through a partnership with Forest National Bank, every student is given a bank account, something that many of them would not or generally not have access to). Equity, workplace conflict resolution, understanding personal mental health and more are also covered. By the time they graduate from Power To Work, students can earn GEDs – some even begin professional certification or courses at Jefferson Community and Technical College while still in the program. Some are leaving Power of Work with certifications in occupational safety and health administration or forklifts, and others with jobs in information technology or hospitality thanks to POW’s partnership with Marriott hotels.
Since taking over the class in January, Jones said, the class has had a 75 percent success rate placing people in $ 14-an-hour-paid jobs with health benefits. “People are actually saying, ‘Oh they can have their food stamps, I can support myself,'” Jones said.
Power of Work runs classes in the Heyburn Building on Broadway, minutes from the Russell neighborhood, where about 11,000 people don’t have their GEDs. POW creates free access to residents of those communities who receive the referral.
“We are breaking down the stigma that you are unworthy,” Jones said.
Alexandria Schnell graduated from the Power to Work program three and a half months ago and still shines from her experience. “I was at a point in my life where I was like, ‘I’m tired, I’m tired of being in this repeated cycle,” she said.
Schnell entered the program with excellent communication and presentation skills, but learned that being able to really listen in interviews and in the workplace was her pitfall. Jones and various other social workers gave her the skills and resources that were barely out of reach, such as connecting to the job skills certifications she needed to thrive.
“My advice is to listen and do what they tell you to do, it doesn’t stop after the program,” Schnell said. “Don’t stop is my final answer – don’t stop doing what you’re doing, and you can do it.”
Schnell graduated from POW and was sent to another program where she received her OSHA training, which allowed her to get the job she now has in maintenance at St. Vincent DePaul, a local thrift store organization that funds assistance programs for individuals and families in crisis.
Jones’ pride in her work is radiant, and perhaps that’s because her connections run deep with the communities she works with. “I must have been unemployed, I had to get food stamps, and now I am a real professional working with people who are in the same situation as me,” she said, ” so I really feel the universe called me to do what I was supposed to do.
“When I fell through those tough times, I had just quit my banking career for health reasons,” Jones said, referring to an all-too-common hurdle that forces people to face financial challenges. “When I returned to the workforce, even with all my experience and references, no employer hired me. That’s why I chose to get the temporary assistance I needed at the time to survive.
When Power of Work was created over 11 years ago (with a one-year grant, mind you), program manager Kimberly Lane came up with the idea of calling it Prisoners of War – Prisoners of the war on poverty and succession, and through the Power of Work, these prisoners can be free in their minds.
“Some of these people don’t even see their faces in the morning, they see the pain and the barriers they’ve been hit with,” Jones said. “We teach them, we empower them, we give them the skills to overcome all barriers in life and society to give them a chance. And not just a chance, but a chance to win. What could Power of Work have done for my mom as she faced a life of financial hardship? What can he do for people who don’t believe they can afford care or a formula for their children, let alone education or certifications? What can it do for people who have lived a life of institutionalization or imprisonment? There is no limit when barriers are broken and we all have access to success.