Job training that puts people – and their community – back on track

Why We Wrote This

Social service organizations can be a lifeline for individuals who are struggling. But Marvin DeJear’s Evelyn K. Davis Center shows that they can strengthen whole communities – one person at a time.

Amina Ali/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Marvin DeJear talks with 15-year-old Michael Wilson, a second-year veteran of the Summer Youth Experience Program at the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families.

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Each year, some 7,000 men and women turn to the Evelyn K. Davis Center for assistance with everything from job readiness support and career opportunities to financial coaching and educational support. 

At the center of that effort stands Marvin DeJear. He has been with the center since its founding in 2012, initially serving as operations manager before taking the helm as director. 

“I consider us like an airline hub,” says Mr. DeJear. “We help people catch the connecting flights to change their life.” 

Under his direction, the center has become a one-stop shop that helps connect clients of all ages and backgrounds to the resources necessary to help them better their lives.

Those efforts to support individuals add up to strengthen the entire community, says Reeva Neighbors, a client who has taken advantage of many of the center’s services. “What the center does for the city of Des Moines,” she says, “is show the community that no matter where you are in life, there is always a way up.”

Reeva Neighbors was already feeling stretched thin when she needed to help her mother through multiple health issues in 2014.

Ms. Neighbors, who is herself the mother of three children, was also taking online courses, but lacked internet access. But she knew where to turn: the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families.

The center’s free computer lab ensured she could get her homework done and stay in school while juggling her dual caregiving responsibilities. That’s just one example of how the Evelyn K. Davis Center has helped to keep her afloat when life has started to feel overwhelming.

“The center has helped me over the years in so many ways, from using the computer lab and meeting with the job development team, to the financial department helping me get on a budget that was right for me,” Ms. Neighbors says in an email interview. “I am stable and paying off my student loans with no issue, and now have a job. I am very thankful for everything that the center has done, not only for myself, but also for my family and the people of my community.”

Each year, some 7,000 men and women like Ms. Neighbors come to the Evelyn K. Davis Center for everything from job readiness support and assistance with career opportunities, to financial coaching and educational support. 

At the heart of that effort stands Marvin DeJear. He has been with the center since its founding in 2012, initially serving as operations manager before taking the helm as director. Under his direction, the center has become a one-stop shop that helps connect clients of all ages and backgrounds to the resources necessary to better their lives.

Every step of the way

“I consider us like an airline hub – we help people catch the connecting flights to change their life,” Mr. DeJear says in a phone interview. “We really focus on meeting people where they are at, and helping them find a game plan to help them accomplish whatever goals, dreams, or desires that they have had.”

Center staff work with clients to individualize those game plans. They might include education and employment assistance or one-on-one counseling from a job developer to define skills, craft a résumé, and identify job opportunities. The center organizes career fairs and offers assistance with professional attire, along with support for housing, utility, and transit expenses to help set clients on the path toward self-sufficiency. Clients can enroll in classes in digital literacy, parenthood, and a range of other topics.

Mr. DeJear sees clients who are homeless, some who are reentering society, and many more who are looking to improve their lives and the lives of their families.

“It could be somebody who has really hit rock bottom,” he says. “And then we have some who have the talent, have the skills and training, but just need help with a résumé.” 

The center also provides intensive, individualized financial coaching that encompasses budgeting, credit repair, loan readiness, and more.

“We can take people from debt reduction and credit repair all the way to helping them buy a house, build up their three to six months of savings, [and] help them buy a car,” says Mr. DeJear. “We help them every step of the way.” 

Holistic support 

Mr. DeJear has always been a person who has enjoyed helping others, and was drawn to the center when changing careers after a successful stint with his general contracting company. He has also spent time teaching working adults at William Penn University, and volunteering to provide financial coaching to students at Iowa State University.

His role doesn’t feel like work, he says, but rather a way to continue helping others. And he is passionate about the challenges they face.

“I don’t think people realize what it really looks like for people on the ground day to day,” he says. “Forty to 50% of Americans can’t handle a $300 or $400 emergency. This work is critical to make sure people have a real chance of being successful moving forward.”

The center is open to anyone – and clients include students at the Des Moines Area Community College as well as residents throughout the region. Although it was initially established to assist those in the urban core of Des Moines, its reach has far exceeded those boundaries.

“We have helped people in 13 ZIP codes, compared with the original 10 neighborhoods this collaborative idea was built around trying to help,” says Mr. DeJear.

A core component of the center’s model is the offering of holistic support – a model that Mr. DeJear credits for much of its success.

“You are really focused on helping people and making sure they have the opportunity to have that [improved] quality of life,” he says. “It is just the reality that people need these things to move forward in a lot of areas.”

Bolstering the community

On a rainy Friday morning at the center, career coach and job developer Terrance Cheeks was settling in for the day. He worked for the state of Iowa in workforce development before joining the center two years ago, and now he helps clients with résumés and job searches.

“We think it is important for everyone to have a career,” says Mr. Cheeks, who adds that they want clients to become self-sufficient, and not have to live paycheck to paycheck.

Assistant director Joy Esposito, who has been with the center for four years, emphasizes the approach of the entire staff with new clients.

“When people come through the door, it is our responsibility to listen to them and try to match our services with their needs,” she says while walking through the center, passing by classrooms and offices. “When they leave here, they are feeling a little more hopeful than when they came in, and that is vital to the work that we do.”

The organization’s client base continues to grow year after year, a testament to the level of need in the community. As clients’ needs shift, Mr. DeJear works to develop new programming, says Kristi Knous, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, which played a key role in establishing the center.

“He is changing lives, one by one, and is changing our community for the better,” she says.

Ms. Neighbors has felt that ripple effect throughout the community firsthand.

“What the center does for the city of Des Moines,” she says, “is show the community that no matter where you are in life, there is always a way up.” 

For more information, visit www.evelynkdaviscenter.org.

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