HopeWorks removes barriers to employment

HopeWorks helps Memphians find a career thanks to training, education and self-esteem building.

Removing barriers to employment is at the heart of the mission of HopeWorks Inc.

HopeWorks started in 1988 when several Memphis Churches of Christ sought a way to provide care for the poor and homeless of the community. The basic mission is to provide hope and a job.

How the faith-based nonprofit organization accomplishes that is through a variety of ways.

But it must start with helping participants believe in themselves, said Ron Wade, Executive Director of HopeWorks. Along with that belief comes the removal of barriers that keep many job-seekers from finding employment. And in West Tennessee, that’s often the lack of a high school diploma. HopeWorks has an aggressive adult education component that grew this year as the state of Tennessee recognized the organization as the primary GED provider in the community.

Another segment of the unemployed and underemployed in Shelby County is ex-offenders.

“That criminal background is a real deal breaker for most employers,” Wade said. “They do a background check and compare to an individual who doesn’t have a background. And unless there’s a relationship prior or a real commitment on the employer side they don’t get hired. Then it’s a snowball effect and they oftentimes return to jail.”

Whether someone has a criminal background or has come in seeking assistance with gaining employment, HopeWorks provides a personal and career development class. For 13 weeks, participants spend five days a week from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. learning soft skills, career selection, computer work and on-the-job training based on a chosen career path. Mentors and counseling are provided.

HopeWorks interviews about 80 potential participants and usually takes about half of those for classes.

Participants find out about HopeWorks in a variety of ways, but it’s usually word of mouth from a family member or someone in the neighborhood.

And while the program costs $3,000 per student to operate, there is no cost for participants to go through the program. There are three requirements: good attendance, which is tracked via a time card; random drug testing; and motivation.

“You can’t come to class and act like you don’t want to be there,” Wade said. “So we lose about 35 up to 40 percent of the people that start the program. But those that graduate – and we’ve had over 1,000 graduate – we can tell an employer we have someone with good attendance, is drug free and motivated with over 300 hours of experience so hire from us instead of off the street. We’ll then stay with them if you allow us to to make sure that person coming out of generational poverty or incarceration makes it.”

When students begin the class term, one of the first things they do is develop camaraderie with classmates in the hopes they will encourage each other through the course of the 13 weeks. Students provide a pictorial scene of his or her life prior to coming to the class, and that’s where common bonds are clear.

“From that life you’ll see everything, but the majority of things that are common are incarceration, dropping out of school, possibly domestic violence – most everyone has seen some victim of sexual problems around them,” Wade said. “Sometimes we work with organizations that help women get out of prostitution, so you have a mixture. What happens is in these sessions ‘my self-esteem is pretty low but if I have a trust in class that is share mine and then hear yours and realize you’ve had a tough time as well,’ you begin this bonding so you encourage each other.”

That’s the first part of the class. Leading up to the six-week point in the class students learn what it means to work as a team and how to get along with a variety of bosses. There is then a career selection process, trying to get students aligned with a work environment that keeps them most likely to stay engaged and on the job.

About the sixth or seventh week of the program students go from spending every day in the classroom to going to a worksite on Wednesdays to shadow an employer. Participants process the experience with counselors on Thursdays and Fridays.
Getting a job is the first step. But sometimes keeping it is even harder. So HopeWorks has a program where it continues to monitor graduates as they advance in a career.

“We work with employers so that if John Doe isn’t getting good reviews and for whatever reason is on the cusp of being terminated we’ll try to step in and help that,” Wade said.

Of course not all participants seek what Wade calls the “bells and whistles.” Some people just want to finish their high school equivalency, and HopeWorks is happy to oblige on that front.

HopeWorks leases space at Midtown Church of Christ at 1930 Union Ave. The space has served the organization well through the years, and its location on a bus route gives convenient access for participants.

But growth is on the organization’s mind, and Wade said there is a desire to expand facilities.

“We’ve run out of space,” he said. “We have a 13-week program that’s modular so one thing I’d like to do is in the middle of the program is begin another class. So if we put another class in the middle the turnaround is quicker. Facilities is something we’re looking at but we’re a small faith-based group. We don’t have a war chest of money.”

The organization isn’t necessarily looking to relocate; rather, Wade said HopeWorks is looking at satellite locations in different parts of the city.

Anyone in the region can use HopeWorks’ services as long as they have transportation. Participants must be able to read on a sixth-grade level for the curriculum. And because HopeWorks is housed in a church sex offenders by law can’t participate.
Looking back at his corporate background, Wade said he sees some similarities. His background includes more than 30 years with an international printing company. He now uses his experience to sell people instead of printing.

“It’s been rewarding but it’s the hardest job I’ve ever done,” he said. “I often tell people if I had worked this hard in the for-profit arena as I have in nonprofit ministry I could have bought a desert island and been a philanthropist. The population we serve, it’s one step forward and two or three back, but the ones who make it make it a rewarding job.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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