Church joins with state to lift women off welfare 230 have found work in first year of job-skills partnership

July 23, 1998|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Can church and state mix when it comes to ending welfare as Baltimore has known it? At Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in the heart of midtown, the answer is: absolutely.

Almost a year after its launch, the first welfare-to-work partnership between Maryland and a Baltimore church has results to show: 500 people have signed up, and 230 have landed jobs.

The rules for everyone who signs up for this tough eight-week job search program are spelled out the very first day.

Participants know they have to wear career clothes, such as pantyhose -- even on hot summer days -- and arrive on time at 9 a.m. -- just as if they were in the work force. And if you're absent three times, you're out. They call it boot camp for job hunters.

The fact that welfare doesn't have to last forever -- especially in this "welfare reform" era -- brought about the $1.5 million state-funded social experiment.

"For those who want a prayer, they just have to ask," said the church pastor, the Rev. Vashti M. McKenzie. But for the most part, the gospel preached is a hard-headed work ethic and the practical skills and tools needed to land a minimum-wage job.

"Are you ready to take the first step?" is what assistant director Denise Harper asks incoming clients, mostly women struggling to take the large leap from welfare to work. The answer is usually a resounding yes.

Yesterday, the afternoon drill was a series of videotaped "mock interviews" in which women took turns playing the roles of applicant and employer while others watched and critiqued the performances.

Something as simple as a firm handshake and eye contact changes "the image you present," said Harper.

Program success story Tracey Graham, 22, of Ashburton, said the program lifted her self-confidence and helped her find a job as an administrative assistant.

The contract with the state calls for placing 1,000 welfare recipients in jobs over a two-year period. "The emphasis has changed, from giving people what they need, to [their becoming] independent, not just giving them a check," said Harry Bosk, spokesman for the state's Department of Human Resources.

Each case is a different story and a different "individual employment plan," officials said, and each one happens slowly, sometimes painfully.

Take East Baltimore's Sandra Naylor, 51, who supports two grandchildren on her $302 monthly public assistance check. "That's rough," she said yesterday. "I want to go back to work. I don't want to stay home and do nothing."

Before coming to the Payne Memorial outreach program, she said, she didn't know the "do's and don'ts" of interviewing, such as: "Don't go to an interview chewing gum."

One of her required 20 employment contacts was applying for a cashier job at an Eastern Avenue arcade.

Linda Rosenberg, 39, learned to answer the telephone at home with, she said, "a bright and pleasant voice," in case the caller was a would-be employer.

Marlene Rogers, 38, said, "One thing's holding me back, and that's my education," adding that she did not finish high school and then lived on welfare for eight years.

Most of the 500 people enrolled must overcome serious barriers to employment, such as dropping out of high school, drug addiction or child care responsibilities, Harper said.

Then there is the matter of putting a sketchy work history on a new resume. Harper suggests they present the management skills involved in being a parent.

Since welfare recipients have been prohibited by law from having a checking account, many have to learn how to manage money for the first time.

"Focus on needs, not desires," the Rev. Angelique Mason, an instructor, told a group gathered in the church pews yesterday. "Do you really need call-waiting in your Bell Atlantic bill?"

In another room, Jessica Artis led a discussion on ending cycles of self-destructive behavior.

Michelle Towler, 23, left early to catch a bus for an interview at the Maryland Transit Administration for a $7.50 an hour job cleaning light rail cars.

Harper frowned at the tattoo exposed on Towler's arm, but it was too late to go to the congregation's "career closet" for a change of clothes.

"This is all new to me," said Regina Barnes, 29, of Park Heights, whose husband died in April. "I'm going to do whatever it takes and get off the system. You have to start from somewhere."

Her life would be better, she said, "if I find a job." Then she shook her head and said, "Not if. I'm going to. I will."

Pub Date: 7/23/98

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