Beginning with Jobs

March 19, 1995|By SARA ENGRAM

As a staff associate at Episcopal Social Ministries in the early 1980s, Emily Thayer was intrigued by the successes of religious communities who were helping resettle refugees.

Jews fleeing Russia, Central Americans escaping civil war, Asians seeking peace and freedom -- thousands of these refugees were arriving in America, welcomed by congregations who took them under wing, ushering them into new lives with all the personal support and attention they would provide for a family member. In case after case, these families -- often alien in language, custom and worldview -- would soon find their footing and be on their way to their own version of the American dream.

As Ms. Thayer describes it, ''In a year, the father owned a garage, the mother was a hairdresser and the kids were winning the spelling bees.'' What would happen, she wondered, if the religious community provided the same information, access and hands-on attention to the rootless in our own society, the ''refugees'' at sea in a shifting economy?

The answer was Genesis Jobs, now celebrating 10 years of steadily growing success. Housed in a parish house in Remington, this volunteer- driven enterprise illustrates the power of the non-profit approach to social problems. Later this year, Genesis Jobs will begin expanding its model to other cities.

In fiscal year 1994, ending last June 30, Genesis Jobs helped 215 people find jobs in 133 area businesses, earning an average income of $12,122.

That's not affluence, but consider what each job adds to the health of the community, as well as to the well-being of workers and their families. Genesis Jobs keeps a statistic that speaks to that aspect of its work as well: The combined annual salaries of the men and women who found employment through the program last year, and kept those jobs for a year, was almost $2 million.

he name Genesis Jobs reflects the program's religious roots, as well as its goal of fresh beginnings -- for the economically uprooted, for those who haven't been able to put down roots and even for volunteers, whose comfortable lives have brought them to a point where they are eager to offer a helping hand.

Genesis Jobs recruits volunteers through congregations as well as word of mouth. Once there, they fill a variety of roles -- from job counselor several hours a week, to joining in brainstorming sessions to come up with job leads, to serving as ''interview escorts'' to boost the morale of applicants on those all-important job interviews.

It's easy to get hooked, they say.

And no wonder: They discover that the skills they have taken for granted -- everything from parental admonitions to ''put your best foot forward'' in appearance and attitude to the value of showing up on time and ready to play -- make them valuable mentors for job-seekers whose lives may lack that kind of common-sense coaching.

Genesis Jobs makes only two promises to job-seekers: ''We will help you keep looking for a job, and we'll do that as long as it takes.''

In return, the applicant is expected to meet weekly with a job counselor (usually a retiree with long experience in the business world), be on time and keep coming back as long as it takes. Once an applicant finds work, volunteers stay in touch with them each week for a year.

''It's not necessarily smarts that gets jobs,'' Ms. Thayer says. ''It's persistence.''

These days, those lessons apply as much to managers as to unskilled workers seeking entry-level jobs. In an economy of downsizing and consolidation, the notion of a lifetime employer is gone. In many cases, the job of a counselor is to help an applicant explain gaps in employment, or simply that ''contract ended, no more work'' -- now a common reason for termination -- was no reflection on the worker's performance. Counselors help job-seekers think through basic questions: What can you say for yourself? What skills can you show an employer? What can others say about you?

That can make all the difference.

Marlo Harvard, a 19-year-old high school graduate trudges in with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He has one child and his girlfriend is expecting their second. He wants to support his family, but he's not having much luck.

A greeter coaxes a smile from him for the Polaroid snapshot that will help the staff come to know him as a person, not just another statistic. His counselor says a smile from Mr. Harvard is a rare sight these days.

It may not be for long. There's a bulletin board filled with other smiling faces -- recent applicants who have found a job. It fills up regularly, but there is always room for more.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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