They're standing in line for Judy Braddy's fried chicken, and she knows it.
When Ms. Braddy went to Oklahoma City's The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM) last spring, she was quiet, fearful, and thoroughly discouraged. But the program, which seeks to move people off welfare and onto the employment rolls, seems to have had a profound effect on Ms. Braddy. TEEM itself hired her to manage its kitchen (the facility provides lunch for its clients, and Ms. Braddy is also responsible for a couple of larger luncheons each month).
"It's the job I've been looking for," says Ms. Braddy, a grandmother who had been out of the workforce and on welfare. "It's something I'm good at."
A new self-confidence is evident in her face, but even more evident in her kitchen. The founder and director of TEEM, Theodore "Doc" Benson, told Ms. Braddy she would have to be creative in her cooking.
"This is a non-profit organization, and it gets a lot of its food from food banks," Ms. Braddy explains. "That means we don't know what we'll get. I have to work with a little of this, a little of that, and a whole lot of nothing."
At first, she was terrified, she admits. "I felt like there was nothing I could do well. I'd been at home, on welfare."
TEEM's program, a week-long class that helps the unemployed (and underemployed) assess their strengths and skills, goes against much conservative conventional wisdom in that it spends a lot of time on self-esteem. Mr. Benson and the people he brings in to teach the classes believe that chronic unemployment both causes and is caused by discouragement. TEEM tries to break that cycle and to give clients the self-confidence to seek work and the skills to succeed after they've found work.
Sin isn't left out. Clients are forced to look at their lives realistically and to work on habits or behaviors that have left them unemployed. And a clear presentation of the Gospel is the centerpiece of the class graduation ceremonies each week. But much of the program drives home the message that if you think no one will hire you, no one will; and if you think you can't hold a job, you can't.
"The program let me know I had some skills, that I wasn't worthless," Ms. Braddy says. "It made me feel like a whole person again."
And that's why, when faced with the two freezers full of zucchini and summer squash she inherited from the last kitchen manager, Ms. Braddy didn't despair. She'd put meals on her family's table with fewer and stranger ingredients; she grabbed some pasta and the vegetables and went to work.
"There are times when I've got a box of unmarked, flavored pasta, a few cans of chili and a few cans of beef stew, and it's up to me to do something," she says. "And there I am, doing it. I'll slice up some tomatoes to make things look pretty, put it all on a plate, and nobody knows it wasn't all planned that way."
Finding work at TEEM "didn't solve all my problems," Ms. Braddy says. "I've still got debts and bills, but I'm working now. I'm moving forward. I'm finding out I can take care of myself. I can sleep now."
A second TEEM graduate World focused on in the spring is now employed as well. Rafael Corral, the 28-year-old father of two who was referred to TEEM by his church when his construction job played out, is working for another construction firm. He says TEEM kept him from becoming discouraged in the first place.
"I started going to the classes right after my job ended," he says. "So I wasn't sitting at home, waiting for calls, watching television. I went right to work after that."
Of even greater value for Mr. Corral was the program's skill-assessment and goal-defining. He says he's now working toward a career change; he learned at TEEM that he would be good at installing and servicing cable and satellite systems, so he's watching for openings in that field.
A third graduate, Daryl Loukx, has not found work. He spent some time working in TEEM's temporary employment division while he was on work-release from the Oklahoma City Jail, but upon his release he returned to Arkansas.
His disability payments continue, but he says his felony convictions and his (treated) mental illness scare off employers. "But I'm going to keep trying," he says. "Someone will take a chance. I think I'll make them a good worker."