Holiday, fair spur some to go apply themselves

Employment: Martin Luther King Jr.'s push for jobs provided inspiration for organizers and several who attended the East Baltimore work event.

January 21, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Keia McCray decided to turn her dream into a reality.

Although the 22-year-old mother from West Baltimore hasn't worked in a year and dropped out of high school at age 16, she was determined to create a better life for herself and her 9-month-old son.

So yesterday, she marched over to a job fair at the St. Frances Academy Community Center and applied for three jobs with food service companies.

"This has everything to do with Martin Luther King's message. If you fall down, you've got to get back up. If you've got a brain, you've got to use it," said McCray, who also is returning to school to earn her diploma. "You've got to just keep going. Never give up."

McCray was one of more than 200 unemployed people who attended a Martin Luther King Day job fair at the nonprofit social services center in East Baltimore to try to achieve economic empowerment for themselves.

Although billed as an event for unemployed men, women were also welcome.

The visitors -- many of whom struggle to overcome barriers including limited education, lack of transportation and criminal records -- met with hiring officials from Johns Hopkins Hospital, Aramark food services, Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse builders and a dozen other companies.

"The idea is that Martin Luther King's march on Washington 40 years ago was for jobs and freedom. Those were the goals he was working on when his life ended," said Ralph E. Moore Jr., director of the community center, which opened a year ago to provide counseling for the poor of East Baltimore.

"Unless we bring jobs to the people here in the neighborhoods, the city is not going to have a future," Moore said.

The recession has made this a difficult time in which to hold job fairs. At least three of the employers at yesterday's event warned applicants that they had temporary or partial hiring freezes in place because of the economic downturn.

"I'm kind of embarrassed coming here, because we have a hiring freeze on right now," said David Richman, a hiring official at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "So there are only a few jobs for which we are taking applications," including lab technicians, secretaries and inventory clerks.

Still, scores of unemployed visitors were determined to find work. John Murphy, a 23-year-old father from East Baltimore, showed up with his fiancee, Joy Baker, 24, and filled out a job application to work for the Aramark food service company at Kernan Hospital in Northwest Baltimore.

"It's real tough to try to find a job these days, especially if you're young and a felon -- people don't want to give you a chance," said Murphy, who has a drug possession conviction. "I'm looking for any job that's available out there."

Harold Thomas, 50, a part-time roofer looking for a better job, filled out an application to work for Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse construction firm. He and the other applicants didn't hear an answer yesterday, but they said they were encouraged by thinking about King's contributions toward opening up workplaces to minorities.

"At one time in the past, jobs weren't open to all people," said Thomas. "Now there are a lot more opportunities. People can aspire to be more than they are today. But they have to take advantage of the opportunities that are out there, and people don't always do that."

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