A recipe for redemption

Program helps homeless gain skills that win jobs

Pat Donahue's workday tasks befit the life of a lead cook at one of Seattle's swanky downtown hotels.

Breakfasts are prepared for hotel guests, prep work is assigned, a special of the day is planned, and the hotel staff must be fed. On top of that, there's the occasional evening banquet for 1,000 people.

On days like this, says Mr. Donahue, a 17-hour shift is just part of doing the job he loves. Rising to this level of work is not bad for someone who, just three years ago, was living on the streets, chronically unemployed, and grappling with a drug problem.

Back then, a friend told him about FareStart, an intensive job-training program in Seattle that prepares homeless people for jobs in the food-service industry. It was there that Donahue turned his life around.

His case is far from unique. Of the nearly 500 people who have taken the "Life Skills" training program developed for FareStart in 1997, 91 percent had jobs upon graduation. And more than 80 percent remained employed after one year. In contrast, only 20 percent of homeless people who found jobs nationwide were able to hold them for more than three months, according to a December 1999 study by The Urban Institute.

The Life Skills program is now being extended to other nonprofit organizations, including the Seattle-based United Indians of All Tribes and culinary training programs in Glasgow and Eugene, Ore.

The program's curriculum was adapted from the corporate world - where clarity is key to achieving goals - to suit the day-to-day struggles of homeless and formerly homeless people. It teaches the value of communicating effectively, participating in groups, recognizing one's own abilities and contributions, and taking responsibility for interactions with other people.

"You learn a lot about yourself in that program," Donahue says. "I didn't like the direction I was heading in, and I knew I needed to make a change."

Donahue now credits these skills with changing his life - and his relationship to the world around him.

The idea to start a life-skills program came from Cheryl Sesnon, who served as FareStart's executive director from 1994 until early this year.

A former cocaine addict, Ms. Sesnon "hit bottom" in the early 1980s, when at the age of 25, she tried to kill herself. "I felt like I never fit in. I'd walk around and see people smiling and happy and think, 'They must just be really ignorant. They don't get it.' That was my reality ... [It was] that feeling of beating your head up against the wall nonstop and having no idea how to get out of that pattern."

Sesnon drifted through several low-level restaurant jobs until she decided to start "looking at people whose lives were successful … [and] asking a lot of questions."

The strategy helped. Soon, she moved into managerial positions. By the mid-1980s, she was running her own catering company.

Sesnon eventually decided the steps she took - resetting priorities, establishing goals, and sharpening the way she communicated with employers - could help others turn their lives around, too.

When she first arrived at FareStart (then called Common Meals) in 1993, drug abuse was rampant, she says. One waitress was working barefoot. Worse yet, nobody seemed to care.

Sesnon attempted to informally relate her life lessons to her students, but she realized a standardized program was necessary to meet their specific psychological needs. So she turned to Tawn Holstra, a corporate trainer who was busy teaching communication skills to Fortune 500 executives.

With Sesnon's encouragement, Ms. Holstra adapted her training methods to serve the homeless and other groups.

In the early stages, Holstra was particularly surprised at the depth of the communications problem among FareStart students. Many would rather quit a job, for instance, than face the perceived humiliation and inappropriateness of asking for time off to make an urgent appointment, or tend to a sick child.

"If you or I were stranded someplace for a week, and we stood on the corner and asked people to help us - and nobody even looked at us - we wouldn't be the same," explains Holstra. "Some of these people have been in those situations for months or years. That impacts how people think of themselves.

"Part of why [the average person] has effectiveness is because we're used to having results produced," she adds. "But if you don't get results for long periods of time, you lose that ability."

Standing in front of a whiteboard in a small, makeshift classroom in the basement of the building that houses FareStart's main downtown restaurant and an adjacent residential hotel, a group of students in the early stages of their 16-week training are engaged in exactly this conversation. "There's incredible power in telling people what you're thinking about," Barbara Hill, FareStart's program director, tells her class.

The ensuing classroom discussion quickly moves onto speculation about the reactions that people might have to honestly stated requests. "You might be rejected," says one student.

Learning to face disappointment and rejection is, in fact, a key lesson of the Life Skills Program, says Holstra, who now serves as the executive director of the Seattle-based nonprofit Alliance for Committed Civic Engagement and Social Solutions. "We teach them that it's a learning experience.... All of us have failure in life in different ways. What makes a [person] effective is that they don't get stopped by [failure] and they continue to pursue their dreams."

That lesson wasn't lost on Donahue. Before taking the Life Skills course, he says, stress, confrontation, fear of failure, and even fear of accomplishment had thwarted his progress. Accomplishment and a regular paycheck meant the temptation of buying drugs.

But today, Donahue feels good about his many accomplishments and abilities. He has asked for raises and received them, has stayed clean and sober, and has learned how to use his wits rather than his fists to get out of confrontations in the workplace.

What kept him committed to sticking to his job after a grueling first year doing low-level food preparation work: his determination not to let his newfound friends at FareStart down.

The sense of place and community engendered by the Life Skills Program training, agrees Ms. Hill, is of paramount importance. "They are not alone in the world. The isolation they were experiencing may not have been entirely of their own making, but they have a lot of power to be able to [change] that for themselves for the future."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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