National program aids needy senior citizens in finding jobs

The Chinese proverb ''Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime'' could be the motto of the Naples, Fla., branch of the Senior Community Service Employment Program. This national program, sponsored by the American Association of Retired Persons and funded by a federal grant from the Department of Labor, was established to help able, economically disadvantaged people over 55 years of age give up their dependence on others and become self-supporting.

The Naples office serves all of Florida's Collier County, an area about the size of Rhode Island. Despite the fact that most of the county is Everglades swampland, farmland, or resort areas, with only a few very small industrial plants, the office still manages to place 85 percent of the current 140 program enrollees in paying jobs. In addition, with an annual budget of $800,000, six independent audits this past year show that for every dollar spent there is a return of $1.15, based on each enrollee's removal from the welfare rolls, the taxes he now pays as a worker, the money he now spends in the community, and the business taxes his purchases generate.

The office's outstanding success stems from a genuine desire to help people and a tremendous enthusiasm for the work. It starts with the friendly, outgoing project director, Edmund Ryan and filters down through his staff of six employees, out to the 34 cooperating agencies that provide the teaching experience, and finally to the community at large.

Mr. Ryan explains that to qualify as an enrollee in the program, an applicant must first fit within established guidelines and must sign an agreement ensuring his cooperation toward reaching the ultimate goal of self-supporting employment. He is then interviewed for capabilities, experience, interests, general health, and education (average is sixth grade). If accepted, he is placed in nonprofit or civic programs where he is taught skills that will lead to employment in the private sector. During the learning period he works 20 hours a week, for which the local program pays him the current federal minimum wage. Then when he is prepared for the final step, the program helps him find a satisfactory job.

About 60 percent of the enrollees are blacks, Indians, Hispanics, and Haitians. Mr. Ryan says he finds it ''easy'' to relate to such divergent groups. ''I'm tremendously interested in people and their cultures,'' he says. ''They trust me because they know I want to help them but not try to change their cultures.''

In the three years Mr. Ryan has headed the Naples program, enrollment has doubled, and he expects it to redouble within the next year. He attributes much of this achievement to the excellent cooperation of the various community agencies.

The success is also due to staff members such as Edgar Hunt. When Mr. Hunt, now 81, was hired as job developer, he was given one instruction: ''I don't care who comes in or what their condition may be; when they leave they should be happy, knowing someone will help them.''

Today, Mr. Hunt practically chortles every time he matches a person with a job - which happens with amazing regularity. His goal at the beginning of the year was 70 jobs; his final count for the fiscal year was 320.

For several months the cloud of federal cutbacks hovered over the agency, but a bill recently passed over President Reagan's veto included funds for the continuation of the program. Once again the Naples office has shifted into high gear and has earned the No. 1 spot out of the nearly 100 offices nationally involved in this program.

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