from Oklahoma City
Daryl Loukx's looks admittedly scare small children and social workers. It's Monday, and he arrives early at The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM) in Oklahoma City as part of his work-release program at the city jail. For the last seven years, the taxpayers have supported Daryl-either with monthly Social Security/Disability Income checks or through room and board in prison.
But TEEM, led by Methodist minister Theo "Doc" Benson, says it can turn Daryl-and the other 15 out-of-work adults who are attending this week's Job Readiness Workshop-into productive citizens. With welfare reform a reality, Mr. Benson contends, it's now time to focus on how to move people from welfare to work. Mr. Benson says he knows how to help even the least employable to find jobs.
Mr. Loukx, 40, is a shaggy, unkempt convict with dark eyes and a beard that covers the rest of his face. His uneven knuckles are tattooed with the words "love" and "peace," and a bottle of pills can be heard rattling in the pocket of the threadbare corduroy jacket he wears. The former addict hasn't cut his hair or beard since entering prison for car theft in 1993, and it's been even longer since he's been employed. For seven years now, he's received an SSDI check for his bipolar mental disorder. "If they can make me employable, they're pretty good here," he says in his crisp Boston accent.
He's on a work-release program from the Oklahoma City Jail, where he's 10 days into a 45-day stint for parole violation. Up close, Mr. Loukx is not so bad. He smiles-not often, but occasionally-and he quotes the Bible. He talks easily about his newfound faith and his wife, who lives in Arkansas with her mother. "My mother-in-law only lets me contact my wife once a week," he says. "She doesn't trust me. I guess she has good reason not to."
Mr. Loukx knows that like mothers-in-law, few employers will look past the beard, the shaggy hair, the past drug addiction, the felony convictions, the history of mental problems. "Who would hire me?" he asks in a defeated tone at the first of the week. "I wouldn't."
What will it take to make Daryl Loukx into a working, tax-paying, positive citizen? Doc Benson says what Mr. Loukx needs is a new vision of himself. "We have to change people's self-image," Doc says. "When we tried to help folks, we took away their sense of worth, their dignity, their self-respect. When we did that, we created the four related problems of hunger, homelesses, addiction, and violence."
Mr. Benson, 68, doesn't bother to qualify his statements. He doesn't have to. His program works, and there's no evidence like success. Of the more than 5,000 men and women who have gone through the program, more than 4,000 are currently employed.
A 10-year-old program, The Education and Employment Ministry grew out of Oklahoma's Skyline Urban Ministry. Doc Benson was appointed to Skyline in 1981, and there he saw a need for a way to bridge the gap between welfare and work. He eventually developed a three-part program that claims to spend less than $800 to move a person off welfare (or out of prison) and into the labor force. Mr. Benson often points out that it costs $18,000 to support one person for a year on welfare, and from $15,000 to $60,000 per person for a year in prison.
The first leg of the TEEM tripod is the Job Readiness Workshop, a five-day class that teaches job-getting skills. It includes a day-long career placement test, which measures each class member's abilities, interests, and qualifications, then suggests career fields. Everyone involved with TEEM-not only the unemployed who come for help, but also TEEM staff members and volunteers-goes through the workshop. It ends with a graduation ceremony. Afterwards, job-placement counselors work with graduates for up to two years as they seek employment.
The second part of TEEM's work is the Temporary Employment (TE) division. Some, after the week-long workshop, aren't ready to get and keep a job, Mr. Benson says. So he provides "bridge employment," a minimum-wage job with TEEM that can last up to 90 days. TEEM crews are out every day mowing lawns, demolishing buildings, doing light industrial work. Outside companies contract with TEEM, and Mr. Benson guarantees the work. "If we don't do a good job, you don't pay," he tells firms. In Temporary Employment, workers are patiently taught "job-keeping skills" such as promptness and honesty.
And third, TEEM requires that each person it helps attend some sort of continuing education at its facility. There are GED classes, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and computer literacy training. It all takes place in an old root beer bottling plant at the edge of downtown Oklahoma City. The former owner, with the advice to "tear it down and start over," gave the building to Mr. Benson in 1987. Broken Thunderbird and Night Train bottles lined the floor; a fire had burned through part of the roof. But Mr. Benson took a liking to the building, and characteristically not wanting to declare anything or anyone irredeemable, he used the first Temporary Employment work crews to clean it up and renovate it. The building is now worth about $1 million.
At the center of the building, Mr. Benson has placed a small chapel, a symbol that the redemption offered by Christ is at the center of the ministry. "We don't indoctrinate people," he says. "But Jesus Christ is the underlying foundation."
Just as a chapel is at the center of the building, self-confidence is at the center of what is taught during the Job Readiness workshop.
The laid-back Joe Smith is just the sort of volunteer that orators at the Presidents' Summit in Philadelphia were prepared to praise. He's a 70-year-old retiree, a psychologist who visits TEEM twice each week. On Mondays, he talks to the class about defeatism and self-image. On Wednesdays, he offers a free hour of counseling, "about whatever you want to talk about," to the men and women in the workshop.
The self-esteem mantra is echoed during the rest of the workshop. Joyce Kellogg is another volunteer who comes to TEEM each week. Her spin on self-help includes biblical truth and secular nostrums. "The Bible is the best Positive Mental Attitude book on the list," says Ms. Kellogg, a gray-haired dance instructor. She wears a sharp business suit with a small angel pin on her lapel. "Once you feel good about yourself, the rest comes."
All this talk of self-esteem makes Christians nervous-Is the Gospel's golden message of God's grace alloyed with cheap metals?-and conservatives queasy. After all, "self-esteem" is the buried treasure that has led educrats to tunnel under the foundations of American education. But Pat McGuigan, a journalist who now serves as chief editorial writer for the Daily Oklahoman, says Mr. Benson's focus is legitimate. "On the one hand, liberals tend to underestimate the 'sloth factor' when dealing with people on welfare," says Mr. McGuigan, who often volunteers at TEEM. "But we conservatives often underestimate the number of people who truly want to get off welfare, and who just need a hand or a bridge, the things Doc provides."
Everyone who's been unemployed for any length of time knows the creeping despair and the mounting doubts that Mr. Benson addresses, Mr. McGuigan says.
Judy Braddy is a 48-year-old grandmother who hasn't been to a job interview in more than 10 years; she says she knows those doubts intimately. Ms. Braddy, who learned of TEEM from one of its billboards, is a charming, soft-spoken black woman with long braided hair and a ready smile. But she says she watched her hope fade as her attempts to find work failed. "I got down on myself, and then the longer I went without a job, the worse I felt about myself," she confesses. "I didn't know what to expect in a job interview. I didn't know what they'd ask or how to answer the questions. I didn't have any self-confidence, and I know it showed."
Rafael Corral, 28, nods in agreement. He's only been out of work for a week, but with a wife and two little girls to support, he says, a week can seem like a year. His church referred him to the TEEM workshop. "I had to do something, you know?" he says. "I had been working in construction but the job played out. All I knew how to do was get construction jobs, and those just don't last."
Mr. Corral, who was born in California, has worked installing alarm systems and closed-circuit television cameras; he's interested in finding a similar job, but with more staying power.
Mr. Benson contends the time is right for TEEM. "The nation is now ready to help people help themselves," he says. "The days of the handout are over. It took me a while, and it took the nation a while, to learn that when you help people, you generally get a cussing for not doing more. I'm a Methodist minister, and it used to be my business to fix people. Problem was they wouldn't stay fixed for more than 30 minutes or so. I had to learn not to fix others, but to help them fix themselves."
Is that enough for Mr. Loukx, Ms. Braddy, and Mr. Corral? Time will tell, and WORLD will check back with these three during the next year to find out.