Opening Doors to The WorkPlace

On Thursday March 30, 2017, at City Hall in Norwalk, the Economic Security Committee, in partnership with The WorkPlace, presented "Opening Doors to The WorkPlace": an informative discussion about the array of cross-sector programs and services offered by The WorkPlace, a key member of the Opening Doors Fairfield County collaborative.

The morning's panel of WorkPlace staff featured (pictured below, from left to right): Director of the SW CT Re-Entry Program, Debra Keel; Special Projects Director, Debbie Venditti; Nordia Savage from the Strengthening Working Families Initiative; and YouthWorks Program Manager, Diana Napier.

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Carl Palmer, co-chair of the Economic Security Committee (and Case Manager for the Alpha Community Services-run Harrison and Boston Avenue Apartments) provided the event's introduction, welcoming the 70 provider staff and cross-sector collaborators in attendance. 

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Following Carl, Debbie Venditti delivered an introduction to The WorkPlace, and an overview of its programs. First, Debbie gave a bit of history, and described the journey from One-Stop to CT Works to the American Job Center, and finally The WorkPlace. Debbie described each program with detail, and placed special emphasis on sustainability.

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Diana Napier spoke next, and outlined the YouthWorks and YouthBuild projects. YouthWorks, Napier said, offers a fundamental skills program, encompassing math and reading; soft skills; job search; OSHA training; remediation; and career start. The WorkPlace provides assistance with transportation, school supplies, child care, and career exploration. YouthBuild primarily serves Bridgeport youth who do not have a high school diploma, and offers a chance to learn trades.

Napier also mentioned the Summer Earn and Learn Employment Program, which is very popular right now. This 7-week program usually serves around 400 youth. There is one week of training, followed by six weeks either on the job or in the classroom. Napier said she tells students who are more interested in being at the work site than in the classroom that some of the lessons they can learn in the classroom will be life-changing. The students earn minimum wage and work around 20 hours a week, and it's a great pathway into a career or additional higher education.

Diana introduced Anne Carr to add further insight and field some questions. Anne Carr, in addition to being Vice-President of Operations for Career Resources, is a member of the Economic Security Committee, and a fantastic partner in Opening Doors Fairfield County.

Anne explained how YouthWorks and YouthBuild outreach to youth, including youth with disabilities. Speaking of the holistic, wrap-around services The WorkPlace provides to youth, Anne emphasized the follow-through every step of the way: from training, to the job search, through the application process, and then not just landing a job, but maintaining the job.

Nordia Savage spoke next, first about Health CareeRx Academy. The mission of the Southwestern Connecticut Health CareeRx Academy is to help increase employment of low-income individuals with an interest in the health-care field. Benefits and services include: skills assessment; job readiness training; healthcare workshops; occupational training; distance learning; internships; career development plans; and job placement services.

Nordia explained that participants find out what services they need, and then they meet with career counselors to learn more about the careers awaiting them in the health-care field.

The final panelist to speak was Debra Keel, who spoke about her work as the Director of the Southwestern Connecticut Re-Entry Program. Debra spoke about the re-entry work she is engaged in, with a special focus on youth and the juvenile justice system. She stressed the reverberating impact that incarceration has on families in a community, saying, "It isn't just about the youth, but about the whole family." Since entire families are affected when a loved one is incarcerated, case management services are crucial, as is keeping families together. Debra said her program tries to re-unify families whenever possible.

She discussed Training to Work Benefits and the follow-through provided to ensure individuals there is a long-term plan in place, even after securing a job or enrolling in an educational pathway.

Debra highlighted several re-entry programs that work in collaboration and close partnership with The WorkPlace, including one in particular.

As a representative of the Mayor's Initiative on Re-Entry Affairs (MIRA), Louis L. Reed stood up to tell his story and provide an overview of the work his program does. Reed, who himself overcame many obstacles when returning to the workforce after serving a federal prison sentence, knows firsthand what many individuals face when returning home. He has dedicated himself to helping others navigate their own journeys out of prison.

Speaking to those in attendance, he emphasized the importance of wrap-around services and cross-sector collaboration in the work his program does. He said it's not just the obstacle of returning home and trying to find a job with a criminal record, but there are often other services needed: whether it's housing, mental health, or addiction services, or some combination thereof.

In her closing remarks, Economic Security Committee co-chair (and Everyone Works Center Coordinator for Career Resources) Caitlin Mongillo said:

"The housing and workforce systems are collaborating much more now, as is witnessed today, but there is always room for improvement and further partnership between our two systems. I have come to realize that both systems are working towards the same end: to assist people in becoming independent, and creating meaningful lives for themselves and their families.

We hope you have learned, have networked, and are going back with resources and connections to foster positive changes for your clients.  One of the most prolific American writers, Louisa Mae Alcott, once said it takes two flints to light the fire. We hope that today has been a spark for you, and would encourage you to go back and start a blaze."