Program helps job seekers find work, rebuild their lives
By JULIE MINDA
For people who are unemployed over a long term, finding a job is rarely their sole concern. Many also face painful emotions, difficult spiritual questions, unrelenting financial challenges.
That's why an employment help program from Indianapolis' St. Vincent Health not only provides job seekers with practical training on finding a job, it also helps them to delve into deep-seated issues that may be contributing to or compounding their worries.
"There are so many individuals that have barriers to employment — they've never had the structure of a steady job, they don't know how to keep a job, they have no idea of their capabilities because no one ever pumped them up," said Linda Nunley. "Our program helps them realize they're capable and qualified — that they have the skills to get and keep a job."
Nunley is the founder and force behind St. Vincent's Special Talents to Achieve and Rise, or STAR, program, an intensive job-readiness training course that includes six weeks of classroom work and six weeks of job shadowing with a mentor at St. Vincent or at another Indianapolis-area employer. CHA awarded STAR this year's Achievement Citation. The honor annually goes to a top ministry program that is innovative and that embodies the Catholic health mission.
Nunley helped to develop STAR shortly after she joined St. Vincent's community development department a decade ago. The department was brainstorming how best to assist Indianapolis community members in a weakening economy.
To help the chronically and long-term unemployed, Nunley and her colleagues in the community development department designed the STAR course to teach people the skills they need to find and keep a position. The instructors — including Nunley, her colleague Pastor Lou Stoops, and businesspeople who volunteer their time — explain to participants how to assess their skills, develop a resume, apply for jobs, prepare for interviews and dress and act professionally in an interview and at work.
There's consistently a waiting list of about 200 candidates for the two dozen or so slots available for each STAR session. Program staff interview applicants and select those deemed most ready for and committed to change.
At STAR, these adult learners must meet exacting standards: They must be precisely on time for each class, wear professional business attire in class, and complete all assignments on time. "If you can't do it during the 12 weeks (of STAR), you're not going to be able to do it when you get a job," said Venus Becton, a program graduate.
Dominic Bailey graduated from STAR in 2008 and got a job at Indianapolis' Fabric Care Center Dry Cleaners and Launderers. He said STAR teaches participants how to advance in white collar jobs — these are the types of lessons that some people missed growing up.
Terri Morris turned to STAR in 2006 after losing her job of 25 years and having to relearn to apply for jobs and interview. Participating in STAR, she said, she gained confidence in her skills and in her ability to get a job. She landed a job as a program assistant in the STAR office.
But the resume writing, interview preparation and skill building work are not the most important ingredients in the STAR program, according to STAR staff and graduates. Program manager Nunley said, "The STAR program works because we can incorporate Jesus Christ into it. And, anything He has His hands in can't fail."
Nunley said St. Vincent gives her the leeway to keep Jesus at the center of the program. Every STAR class period begins with a prayer, the class takes prayer requests, they read Scripture, they talk through spiritual questions and struggles, and they are encouraged to call the STAR office with their prayer requests. Visiting speakers, too, are invited to talk about their faith.
"It is so amazing to see God move in each individual's life," Nunley said. "As the weeks pass by, we hear the testimonies from the students of how their situation that we have prayed about has changed."
She said, "Many (STAR participants) have either given their life to Christ for the very first time or have rekindled their relationship with Him because of the transformation that has taken place while in the classroom."
This type of transformation is important to the participants because many of them made bad choices or have had life experiences that are holding them back, she said. Many students have been incarcerated, some multiple times. Many have been involved with drugs and street life. Many have been homeless. Some have been abused physically and emotionally. Many feel hopeless and like they have no purpose.
Some are still in crisis when they enter the program. They may need to be driven to a shelter, or just allowed time to share a cry.
Nunley gives students her personal phone number. "You have to be willing to meet the participants right where they are and that could be in the wee hours of the morning, in the middle of the night, during your lunchtime. Their crises are urgent to them, and you have to be available."
Morris, the program assistant, said her work is like "undercover ministry" — she regularly fields calls of students in crises and talks with them about their troubles and prays with them.
Graduate Bailey experienced his own transformation in STAR. His single mother often left him to his own devices, and in time he turned to street life. "I did what it took to get me some money. But living that type of lifestyle, one minute you don't have nothing and the next you have opportunity."
When he heard about the STAR program in 2007, he decided it was time for a change. In the STAR classes, he said, "Every day I was in class something resonated about my past and made sense. One of the biggest things I learned was that God plays a role in your life, no matter whether you accept Him or not."
Coming to grips with his spirituality helped him realize his own value, he said. "It made me feel there was something special about me because I was allowed to survive and make it through all these trials and tribulations. (The people in STAR) have been a great, positive influence on who I am and where I am today."
Becton, too, had a spiritual awakening in class. She had lost her job during the recession and was harboring a lot of anger as she fruitlessly sought work. The STAR experience taught her not to hold on to bitterness, she said. "They helped me to express myself, and let things go and not to hold onto things, but just to say it, get into your quiet place, pray, tell God all about your problems and leave it there." She said dealing with the anger has given her a positive attitude about seeking a job.
Nunley has seen such transformations in lives of the 300-plus people who have graduated from STAR thus far. "I'm most proud of the individuals that once felt in their lives that they would never amount to anything — that there was no hope for them. Now I see them in a position that allows them to better themselves and to better the lives of their families.
"It is a blessing to know that you helped someone," she said.
Professional attire gives men a boost in job interviews
Appearance matters in a job interview, according to Linda Nunley, director of the STAR job readiness program, but not all job seekers have the money to professionally outfit themselves for the job hunt.
Programs like the international nonprofit Dress for Success provide free business clothing to low-income women, but in Indianapolis, there was no such program for men until Nunley founded Danny's Closet of Hope. The service provides men with a clothing consultation and a free suit, dress shirt, tie, belt, dress shoes, new socks and underwear as well as a business portfolio.
Nunley came up with the idea about four years ago, when she saw STAR program participants struggling to find suits to wear to class and to job interviews. At first, she began sneaking unused suits and accessories out of her unsuspecting husband's closet. Then she began receiving donations. The clothes filled a filing drawer, and then the collection expanded into a large filing cabinet. Nunley got leadership support to create a large stockroom and fitting room area with the look of a retail store.
Now, men from the STAR program and other local job referral agencies browse beautifully arranged racks of new and like-new clothes and get advice from a volunteer consultant on how to assemble their suit. The service has outfitted about 300 men in the last year.
The service is named for Danny Nunley Jr., Nunley's son who was murdered in 2002, a case that is as yet unsolved. Nunley said she incorporated the word "hope" into the service's name in reference to Jeremiah 29:11, which says, ""For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare, not for woe! Plans to give you a future full of hope."
Nunley said some men in their 40s and 50s come to Danny's Closet having never before owned a suit. In their new attire, they stand straighter, their faces light up, they gain confidence.
"It's a wonderful way to honor my son," Nunley said.
STAR program reaps benefits for St. Vincent, community
St. Vincent Health of Indianapolis has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into STAR since that job program's 2002 inception. The return on this investment shows up in many corners of the system and in the community.
In addition to their coursework, STAR graduates complete a six-week, on-the-job mentorship program, either at St. Vincent or with another Indianapolis employer. Historically, between 75 percent and 85 percent of STAR program graduates get a job — either at St. Vincent or elsewhere. Nearly 90 percent of those employed are able to keep that job for at least a year.
Ron Mead, St. Vincent chief mission officer, said as more people move into stable jobs, they are able to contribute to the community. Also, individuals who are employed often get health benefits, or at least are less affected by the social determinants of poor health, including poverty.
St. Vincent departments gain from the STAR program because they get access to a steady stream of potential recruits. The STAR program has helped some St. Vincent departments increase their diversity by supplying them with more minority job candidates.
Mead said many managers at St. Vincent are extremely grateful for the program because it produces top-quality candidates who work hard. Also, since STAR includes a basic orientation to St. Vincent, these graduates are familiar with the system when they graduate from the program.
Cindi Zenkert-Strange, a project director at St. Vincent Health, said many STAR graduates have first-hand knowledge of what it's like to be in poverty or in an otherwise vulnerable position, so they are able to share that perspective with other associates. Their stories often inspire their colleagues.
Zehnkert-Strange said, "The STARs who have become associates have added immeasurably to the rich tapestry of talent at St. Vincent."
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