New Lives and New Jobs in New York
Two successful socail programs use discipline, skills training, and inspiration to merge unemployed people back into the mainstream
JANET AVERY BARRETT is angry. The founder of Vehicles Inc., a training organization, has just asked members if they have worked on their goals and discussed them with their "goalmates." No, they have not.
"I feel like we've been wasting our time," says Ms. Barrett, who then explains to the five young men present that "one of the main reasons we are here is to set goals."
While Barrett is uptown, in Harlem, instructor Ruth Rivers of the Veterans Leadership Program (VLP) is downtown, on Wall Street. She has just asked each of the 13 unemployed veterans for 20 stories of their own success. She wants the stories in writing the next morning, though the veterans will be in class until 8 p.m.
"I don't care if they have to stay up all night," says Ms. Rivers, the leader of this mental basic training.
Social workers and private- foundation executives point to these two programs as examples of social programs in New York that work.
At Vehicles, 26 of its 65 members have gone back to school. Fourteen have jobs. Four are off public assistance. So far, only five have dropped out.
Over the last 11 years, VLP has helped 3,000 vets find jobs. Average starting salary: $21,000 a year. Seventy percent stay on the job at least a year. Now the United States Army is considering using VLP as an an outplacement agency for 1 million men and women who are expected to leave their jobs over the next five years as bases close and the military shrinks in response to the end of the cold war.
In addition to being successful, both programs share several traits: They have strong discipline - you can't be late to sessions, for example. They are small, working with no more than 20 people at a time. The leaders of both programs are very focused.
VLP operates out of donated office space in the financial district. This gives participants the feeling they are going to work like the rest of the people downtown.
By contrast, Vehicles is on the second floor of a building owned by the Bethel Gospel Assembly. The area surrounding the building has plenty of empty lots and ramshackle buildings.
The two programs insist that participants be well-groomed and neatly dressed. Barrett recalls that some members of a foundation arrived at her Harlem office in denim. The participants in the program, however, were dressed in business clothes. "Were they ever embarrassed to be dressing down!" she recalls.
Dressing in nice clothes helps build self-esteem among the homeless, former alcoholics, and rudderless who come to Vehicles. Building self-esteem is a major goal of the organization. This is why Barrett focuses on goals. "You get poor self-esteem if you don't achieve the goals," she explains.
Barrett uses her own life as an example. She makes a daily list of things to do, detailed down to when her lights go out. She has a list of goals to accomplish each week. She has longer-range aims as well, such as expanding the program to other cities.
And when it comes to crossing things off her list - look out. "I push myself unmercifully," she says.
Barrett, in fact, uses her life to show the other members ("everyone is a member," Barrett says) that almost anything is possible. She grew up in the housing projects in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. After graduating from high school, she became a secretary at a prestigious law firm.
"That was a big deal for me," she recalls.
Friends at work encouraged Barrett to get a college degree. It was while at college that she began to believe in herself. "It was like a trampoline: You need the trampoline to jump up, but once you are up in the air, you want to get higher," she says. This springboard eventually landed Barrett a job as a vice president at one of Manhattan major banks.
But Barrett always had plans to leave and help other people. A devout Christian, Barrett says that 10 years ago she prayed "God, please put me where you want me to be. I want to be everything You want me to be." The prayers led to the idea for Vehicles, including the name, "which I stuck in my Bible, where it stayed until 1990."
In 1990, she left the bank and opened up Vehicles in a small room at the Harlem YMCA. Her original idea was to work with women between the ages of 16 and 22.
"Then women started asking, " `Can I bring my boyfriend or my brother in?' " Barrett says.
The program expanded, and last March moved to larger quarters in a nursing school at Madison Avenue and 120th Street. "We're open to all people who are striving for a better life," she says.
That's why Elvis Pryme is now a member. After serving seven years in the US Army, Mr. Pryme, a native of Trinidad, started drinking excessively. Nine months ago, the elders in the Bethel Gospel Assembly church introduced him to Vehicles. "It gave me motivation; it brought back my self-esteem," Pryme says.
Barrett has lots of ways to try to motivate individuals like Pryme. A member leads the group in a nondenominational prayer before and after the sessions. No faith is excluded. In fact, Barrett says the spiritual component is a significant part her message. "If you ask me, you cannot achieve true growth without some spiritual component factored in," Barrett says.
Private donors are attracted by Barrett's enthusiasm. "Janet herself is very dynamic, is a wonderful motivator for her clients," says Nina Beattie, a program officer at the Robin Hood Foundation, which helps fund Vehicles.
Tref Wolcott, executive director of the Tiger Foundation, which also funds Vehicles, says she is impressed with Barrett's long-term commitment to her members. Barrett stays in touch with each member, his or her supervisor at work, and even the member's mother. "She stays with them over the long haul," Ms. Wolcott says. Job skills, life skills taught
That's not surprising, since Barrett has the tenacity of a pit bull. "I'm tough," she keeps saying. She is tough, all her members agree, but they quickly add that she also has a big heart.
The same is true of Rivers at VLP. She will work for 30 days with a group of veterans to show tank drivers and company clerks how to present themselves to potential employers.
VLP includes lessons on how to fine-tune resumes to fit different job descriptions, how to use computers, how to conduct oneself in a job interview. But the foundation for the group is the success stories the veterans will write: VLP trainers read them to find out where the men and women excel.
The June class is initially skeptical. One of the vets wants to know about the "lies you are asking us to tell."
Rivers is indignant. "I beg your pardon," she replies. "I did not ask you to lie. We are looking for positive accomplishments."
The skepticism is natural, Gene Gitelson says. He is the founder and president of VLP. The self-esteem of the veterans who come to the program is generally low, since they may have been out of work for some time. In fact, the skeptical vet hints that he has been out of work for several years. By the end of the 30 days, Gitelson says, the vets can't wait to tell you what they can do. "You can treat them like victims," Gitelson says, "or you can challenge them." He does the latter.
VLP's challenges have produced some remarkable results. Take Kenneth Schustal's story, for example. A Vietnam vet, Mr. Schustal returned from combat in 1967. "Everything was different," he says. The difference drove him onto the streets for a decade. His family encouraged him to return to college, which he did. But he ended up driving a cab. "I was extremely suicidal," he says. `Happiest guy on the D train'
In 1989, Schustal began basic training with VLP. Gradually, they helped him to believe in himself again. Eventually, he received eight job offers. Today, he's a court officer in Brooklyn. "I'm the happiest guy on the D train in the morning," he says. "While I lost a lot of life, it makes this part of it that much sweeter," he says.
Then there's the story of Joseph Scott, an ex-Marine (two tours in Vietnam) who fell into a seven-year rut of unemployment. While watching late-night television ("you do a lot of that when you're out of work," he says), he saw an ad for VLP and decided to go. After courses in computers, resume-writing, and how to interview for a job, he became self-confident again. "I'm not afraid to go out interviewing if I'm fired," says Mr. Scott, who landed a job in the maintenance department of a major advertizing a gency.
VLP's strategy of translating military experience into civilian jobs worked for Carleene Cannon, who was in the Marines for 4-1/2 years and is a veteran of Desert Storm. Ms. Cannon showed up after searching for a job on her own for nearly eight months. After a week at VLP, Cannon landed a job as an administrative secretary at a New York law firm. "It's not that much different from what I was doing as a supply clerk in the Marines," Cannon says.
There is now a waiting list of 1,500 vets for the 30-day program, which meets every weekday. To try to meet some of the demand, VLP has begun a condensed night program that costs VLP about $700 per person. The full-day program costs the organization about $2,500 for each of the 15 to 20 people who go through the program each month.
While VLP runs on a yearly budget of $2 million, the program does not cost the vets anything. The private sector provides $1.2 million, which includes $1 million of in-kind donations. (Brooks Brothers, for example, provides business clothing that candidates can borrow to wear to job interviews.) State and federal agencies provide cash for the payroll. What the contributors say
Sponsors are enthusiastic about the program. Rick Weidman, who administers veterans' programs for New York State's Department of Labor, says VLP is "the best at what they do for a certain segment that is highly motivated but needs a lot of basic training for civilian life."
Private contributors are pleased as well. International Business Machines Corp. began contributing to VLP four years ago. "It works," says Bob Sellar, area community relations manager at IBM. "There are lots of jobs programs with mixed results, but this model in particular accomplishes what it is trying to do - which is to stabilize the vet and get him employment."