HOUSTON—It's 9:06 a.m. on day five of The WorkFaith Connection's eight-day, early June boot camp. Twelve people ranging in age from 25 to 59 sit around a U-shaped table in a corporate office building. Seven are men, five are women. Eight are black, four are white. All are looking for work.
Most are not confident that they'll get jobs, so instructor Fran Hopkins, a former deputy warden at a state prison, asks for stories about when they've succeeded in previous jobs. It's all part of a six-year-old Christian project to improve the job-hunting skills of ex-prisoners and others among America's least-employables.
And here's what is spectacular: Three-fourths of the 1,560 WorkFaith alumni have snagged jobs soon after graduating from boot camp, with two-thirds of those continuing in that job for at least a year. That achievement makes WorkFaith our 2012 South region Effective Compassion winner.
A big reason for job placement success, according to WorkFaith CEO Sandy Schultz, is that "they shift from an attitude of entitlement: 'What can you do for me?' becomes 'What can I do for you?'" So on day five the class members recall what they did for previous employers. Myisha Powell emphasizes her time as a medical assistant. Kathi Lakey, unemployed for seven years, talks about how she unjammed a photocopier. Larry Bridgewater, who spent two years in prison for drug possession, recalls a successful meeting with building contractors. Each time the class applauds.
Hopkins asks, "How many of you have ever been corrected on the job?" Most raise their hands. Hopkins says that's nothing to be ashamed of: "Being corrected shows the company thinks you have value." She reminds class members that in the afternoon they will have practice interview sessions with volunteers from Houston companies. She tells them they should meet the interviewers, make eye contact, shake hands, and have questions to ask.
Hopkins asks, "What do you say when the interviewer says, 'Tell me something about yourself'"? The class responds, "Thirty second commercial." ("I grew up in _______. I worked at _______. My strengths include _______. My focus is _______.") Hopkins reminds them: "Admit your past mistakes and poor choices related to convictions, getting fired, or job-hopping. Talk about how you've changed and who you are today."
So far this morning the students have heard good advice that could be offered in all kinds of venues, but now comes something different: Hopkins says, "Pray before going into the interview room," and the class says, "Amen." Hopkins says, "When your hand touches the handle, I want you to say 'Holy Spirit, go in before me.'" The class says, "Amen." Hopkins says, "It is normal for us to be anxious, but the Bible says be anxious about nothing." ("Amen!") "Do everything with prayer and supplication, remembering that God is not a God of confusion." ("Amen.")
Favorite WorkFaith Bible verses include 2 Corinthians 5:17 ("If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation") and Ephesians 4:28 ("Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need"). Hopkins combines biblical explanations with everyday reminders: "Don't look down. Don't roll your eyes. You need to convince them that you're not the person you were." Remember, Hopkins says just before lunch, "THERE IS A JOB FOR YOU."
The students go around the table for one more practice in saying who they are. Near the end, Carrie Johnson confesses that she's "never had confidence because of my criminal background." She weeps and can't go on-and several class members hug her, comfort her, and bring her tissues. She dries her tears and says firmly, "That's who I was. That's not who I am. That's not who I want to be." The class members applaud.
The WorkFaith Connection is different from some other Christian programs because it is full of practical tips. It is different from some secular programs because it is full of Christ.
After lunch Myisha Powell has a rough first mock interview, sitting across from a middle-aged white businessman. She breaks down in tears when talking about her two daughters. When he asks about her criminal background-she stole some money-her eyes shift up and down. But she does better in her second interview, emphasizing her year and a half as a medical assistant during which she took vitals and recorded the medical history of patients. Then comes the toughest question: "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" Myisha says, "I made wrong choices. That's who I was then."
The interviews also help others learn how to report their pasts. Carrie Johnson tells her interviewer that she stole from retail stores when she was nearly homeless-but she also says she took into her home six children, ages 3 months to 13 years, when their mom went to prison. Larry Bridgewater tells his interviewer, "I made mistakes and lost my family. Now I'm making better choices. I'm a changed man and a quick learner. Now I look to God."
Kathi Lakey learns from one interview to the next. Mock interviewer Al Barringer, a retired college administrator, gives her feedback about explaining why she has been unemployed so long: "A couple of sentences are enough: 'I had family priorities: My father was ill. Then I decided to go back to school." Barringer later comments that the interviews are "frightening for them. We are defined by jobs, and for people who care about being productive citizens, every day you wake up jobless is like a big black hole you can't fill."
But Barringer, who also interviews program applicants before they start the eight-day boot camp, says he sees a major difference between their first day and last days: "By the time they graduate, they are able to see their future."
Some potential employers don't think people can change, but more than 1,000 have hired WorkFaith (www.workfaithconnection.org) graduates, largely with good results. Craftsman Glass in Houston is one of the businesses that plans to keep hiring them. The company-ministry relationship began before Scott Schultz, husband of WorkFaith CEO Sandy Schultz, started working at the company three years ago. The relationship has deepened as WorkFaith graduates like Artie Mayham, Don Cosey, and Bob Cox show they can do the job.
Artie Mayham, 50, inspects laminated glass doors at Craftsman's fabrication facility in Houston. He works surrounded by the roar of furnaces and autoclaves that transform jumbo sheets of glass into insulated, tempered, and bullet-resistant varieties-and he likes it: "I do glass doors. Inspect the doors, measure the doors. Make sure the hole location is correct. It feels good once you finish the job, knowing you had something to do with it."
Mayham, incarcerated in Tennessee, says he found at WorkFaith people "not concerned about your past. They're more concerned about you doing God's will." Mayham followed the advice WorkFaith had given him about dealing with his past in an interview: "I laid it out there. I'm trusting in God. Either they accept me and accept my past, or they don't." He became a WorkFaith trailblazer at Craftsman, with "the opportunity to either open the door for more people from WorkFaith or close the door. ... It seemed like I opened the door."
Don Cosey in the 1970s could type 102 words a minute, a skill he put to good use working for nine years at the Bank of the Southwest-until he started drinking and lost his job. During the next quarter century he spent time in jail: When out, he picked up cans and mowed lawns. Potential employers focused on his prison past and lost years. WorkFaith helped him see that the cleaning he'd done in jail was a valuable skill. The organization hired him to clean part time. When he showed reliability, Craftsman hired him in maintenance, and he has worked steadily for the past year and a half. He's seen the rewards: "I have a car. I have clothes. I can pay my tithe. I can take a vacation."
Bob Cox also had a background issue that made him doubt his ability to get a job, but WorkFaith classes helped the CPA move beyond bottling up his past. He learned to tell interviewers, "I made a poor decision. I have paid my time. Now I'm moving on. I'm trying to be the best person I can." Cox says the greatest benefit of working nearly two years at Craftsman is getting back his confidence and winning the trust of his employer: "That was the biggest thing before, losing the trust. It was demoralizing." —Susan Olasky
• WorkFaith Connection expenses were $760,241 in 2010 and $1.23 million in 2011.
• Contributions in 2011 totaled $1.36 million.
• WorkFaith runs on 20 employees and 425 volunteers.
• Sandy Schultz's salary in 2010 was $58,083.
Vote for the 2012 winner and read profiles of finalists and winners from 2006 through 2012 on WORLD's Hope Award page.