Forty-year-old Sandra waved her employee ID card around like it was Olympic gold.
“I have a new job!” she told fellow participants in the county’s “Getting Ahead” program.
“I love my job,” she said. “The people I am working with are great. They’re great. I just love it!”
She was one of a dozen participants in a 16-week skill-building course for low-income residents called “Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World.”
Facilitator Lisa Torres said the program is about building stability and teaching participants they control their futures.
Torres is the housing case manager for Social Services.
“People use this workshop to build their own path to a good-paying job, to stable housing, and to the ability to save for a rainy day and old age,” she said.
Torres said participants for the free program were selected from clients of Douglas County Social Services who come to the agency for assistance with housing and employment.
A major component is building community, she said.
Participants share dinner before class.
On a recent Tuesday, Torres was preparing a meal of pasta, garlic bread and cheesecake in the spacious kitchen of Crossroads Nazarene Church on Pinenut Road.
Pastor Bill Powers donated the facility and church members have provided meals, and free child care.
“Crossroads has been a great host for the Getting Ahead program, being able to use the entire facility has allowed us to provide dinners, child care, and a nice classroom for our workshop participants,” Torres said. “Pastor Bill and his wife, Patty, have made this first session seamless with their help and enthusiasm for this new program.”
Tina Tubridy donates her time to help lead the class. A former Social Services case manager, she was trained in the nationwide program, but left the department when she was hired as the director of the Carson Valley Community Food Closet.
“This is something Tina is so passionate about, she volunteered to teach this class on her own time,” Torres said.
Hilltop Church also donated food for the program along with Douglas County employees.
“We selected the participants based on a few criteria,” said Travis Sharpe, Social Services’ workforce case manager.
Clients have what he calls “significant barriers” to becoming self-sufficient including single parent households, previous substance abuse problems, unemployment or under-employment, transportation issues or unstable housing.
Participants must be committed to the program.
Of the original dozen who signed up, only one dropped out, and that was because she had an increase in her work schedule, Sharpe said.
Attendance is 95 percent. Of the participants, 88 percent are female, 88 percent Caucasian, 12 percent Hispanic. Ages range from 27 to 54, with the average 39, he said.
“I’m the poster child,” Sandra said. “I’ve been through a lot.”
For the first time in her life, Sandra has her own place, “all by myself,” she emphasized.
She’s working 40 hours a week, Monday through Friday, and in three months will be eligible for medical, dental and vision benefits.
“Last night, I went to bed at 7:30 p.m., I was so tired,” she said.
Had she not found Social Services, Sandra said her future would not be so bright.
“I would be back in California, living with my dad and my stepbrother. I would have no job,” she said.
“I am so stable now, I am bouncing off the walls,” Sandra said. “This is the best position I’ve been in my whole entire life.”
“You put the work in, but you were ready,” Tubridy said.
Sandra is in the process of transitioning out of Social Services.
“That should be your goal — not having somebody in your stuff telling you what to do,” Tubridy said.
Another participant who just moved into an apartment talked about her delight at unpacking a china hutch she hadn’t seen in five years.
“I’ve been ‘couchin’ it,” she said.
She walks to work every day to a job she is happy to have.
One of her coworkers just bought a $220 mountain bike so he can get to work in Minden from the Gardnerville Ranchos.
He discovered the hard way that a one-way cab fare was $32.
Participants have found ways to build community among each other — carpooling, trading employment tips, donating household goods.
That is one of the goals of the program.
“We’ve seen both personal and financial changes within our participants,” Sharpe said. “We have seen relationships build and social support from the participants outside of the classes. Several participants have obtained better paying jobs and have motivation to continue in their personal growth. We have also seen a spirit of giving as some participants have expressed interest in helping others in the program.”
Through Getting Ahead, participants are guided in learning how to analyze their lives and make plans as “co-investigators” for building a better future.
For participant Denise, the class has been a lifesaver.
With her baby daughter, the 30-year-old left an abusive relationship, and was provided shelter by the Family Support Council.
“I had nothing, no resources, I didn’t know where to go. I knew I was in trouble, and by the grace of God, I found the Family Support Council and was able to rebuild my life,” she said.
Denise was referred to Social Services.
“I started working with the housing program, food closet, food stamps, Medicaid. I had lists of everything I had to do to build a good life for my daughter and myself,” she said.
In 10 months, she has found a good part-time job, a house, and her self-respect.
“I have had an opportunity to reflect on what happened to us. I am at a point 10 months later that I thought I would be lucky to be at 10 years from now. I feel like I am living a dream with a lot of help from the community.”
Denise said the class fit her life perfectly.
“Once you go through abusive cycles, it’s hard to see the world as it is. I was in the victim mode. With this class, I can say, ‘Wow. You allowed me to look at my future,’” she said. “I am going to be somebody now.
“I would love for someone to read this story, be in similar circumstances, and see they can get out. If they reach out, there’s help.”
Denise said making a change has had a positive impact on her daughter.
“She’s very happy and very secure,” she said.
Every week, participants share dinner, celebrate successes and commiserate over setbacks.
Then, they get to work, turning in assignments from the previous week which focus on learning how to stabilize their worlds: housing, transportation, child care, employment.
They learn what resources to tap into; how to help each other; expectations of employment; how to capitalize on their personal strengths and overcome weaknesses.
This first class graduates May 14, the next session begins in mid-August.
“This was our first class and we didn’t know what to expect,” Sharpe said.
“It turned out better than expected,” Torres said. “The whole point is self-sufficiency. We want to be ‘empty-nesters.’”