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From welfare to dignity

NCR Staff
Newark, N.J.

Betty Hall wears two hats. They could be hard hats. She’s a toughie.

Nikia Windleton agrees. “She mean well. She kick us in our butts. And sometimes it’s needed.”

Hall is tough because she wants the young women and men from Newark’s inner city to succeed in an innovative two-year-plus federal welfare-to-work project that started last summer. Hall wants them to earn high school equivalency diplomas and get as much additional training as they can. And then she wants them in jobs they want, jobs they can do, jobs they can move up from.

Hall’s dual roles: She is coordinator of Essex County’s welfare-to-work program, which gives recipients up to six months to make it into the work force, and she is case manager of a new program offered by the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps. The service and conservation corps program uses U.S. Department of Labor funds to demonstrate that with enough time, a high percent of welfare clients with no work experience and minimal education can be schooled into the work force.

As Essex County welfare-to-work clients complete the service and conservation corps program, and if they’re between the ages of 16 and 30, Hall brings them into the International Youth Organization. That program itself is a three-decade long miracle in survivorship in Newark, where it has been singled out as one of 10 demonstration sites around the country.

Last summer 80 applied to make the transition.

“We identified 45, certified 33 in the first semester,” Hall said. Of the original intake, there are 20 left.

Extra training

The second semester, which added more students, started Oct. 1 and ends in June.

Nationwide, welfare-to-work has a mixed record. Income tax records show that 50 percent of those on welfare four to five years ago have made it into the job market. “And actually, most of those got jobs on their own,” said Derek T. Winans, International Youth Organization co-deputy director. “Truth be known, most welfare-to-work programs didn’t do much. No one knows what happened to the other 50 percent dropped from the welfare rolls,” he said.

Do the extra training years make a difference?

“There they are,” replies Hall, pointing down the lunch table to Windleton, mother of two young children, and Deborah Hardy, mother of two high schoolers and a child in elementary school.

Added Hall, “Welfare programs say get them ready to work in six months and get them out of here. You can’t do it. The next year is the best year.

“This young lady,” she said, indicating Windleton, “was terminated in the first semester. But with the second semester I brought her back. She’s working hard now. And this young lady,” she said, pointing to Hardy, “was never terminated. She’s gone right through.”

Windleton wants to get into college and was studying for her math GED. Hardy was in training as a receptionist. A third client, Ernest Zortorres, wants a real estate license. He’s a 25 year-old father who’s raising his three-year-old son.

The lunchroom in the Timothy Still Complex at the corner of South 12th and Woodland was filled with noise from shifting folding chairs, the clatter of serving platters, from conversation and laughter. Timothy Still was a leader in the Newark African-American community of the 1950s and ’60s. The five contiguous International Youth Organization buildings, plus two others nearby, are beacons of fresh paint and stability in an otherwise bleak area.

Enjoying the fried chicken served by Marquitta Simon and Hall were county inmates with their corrections officers. The inmates had been meeting with representatives of Hall’s two groups, warning them of the risks on Newark’s mean streets.

Zortorres understands. He’s been arrested himself.

Second chances

The meeting between the inmates and Hall’s students was part of the International Youth Organization’s “tell it like it is, then try to do something about it” philosophy.

Hardy and Windleton talked about the program, and themselves. They get to the center daily by catching a ride, walking or taking the bus. If they use the bus, they’re reimbursed.

Hardy, with her GED tests just ahead, has on-the-job training as the Youth Corps’ front office receptionist. “I like it. I like answering the phone in a good manner, taking messages. I do a little filing. I feel real good about myself.”

What surprised her about learning to be a receptionist? “You have to keep smiling.” She wasn’t worrying too much about the GED -- except for the math. “That’s the hardest for me.”

She likes the team approach to learning, which the youth organization’s program offers, “all trying to help each other at their own speed.” Twice a month a job development representative from the U.S. Department of Labor visits South 12th to help students focus their skills on the job market. The program helps both with job-hunting and further education. Hardy, for example, could continue on to a secretarial training school.

The program pays for Windleton’s daughter’s pre-school and daycare for her son. She’s getting work experience at the same daycare center.

Some mornings, her daughter asks her, “Mom, are you going to school, too?” Windleton said. Once she has her diploma, she intends to find a decent paying job and get into a local college. It won’t be like it was when she was younger. Then, instead of finishing school she was “running the streets, not listening.” The result: she didn’t get the score in math she needed on the SAT and couldn’t get into college.

Windleton said she’s determined this time, after Hall gave her a second chance.

Ernest Zortorres has someone watching over him, just as he watches over his three-year old son. It’s Jim Wallace, retired founder and chairman emeritus of the youth organization.

“Everytime I got in trouble he never turned his back on me,” Zortorres said. He came into the program “to get off the streets,” he said.

“I’ve got a three-year-old son who stays with me. I have to be right for him. He wants to go to school because I’m going to school.”

Zortorres, who walks to the program each day, shares child-care with his mother. She doesn’t work until the afternoon, after Zortorres is done with his studies. However, with longer workdays ahead as a teacher’s aide at Cleveland School, as he gets deeper into the program, he’ll be looking for child-care.

Loving into fuller life

GED in hand, he’ll sign up for a real estate course. The program will cover the cost. After that, he intends to go into real estate somewhere in New Jersey and doesn’t mind if it’s Newark.

A second chancer, Zortorres said, “this time I’m determined to go through. Mr. Wallace, he looked out for me a lot. I was bs-ing around, got arrested again. They gave me another chance. I’m going to do it. [The program] might not be here forever.”

John Taylor, the International Youth Organization’s education and training manager, understands the pressures on participants. “They drop out because of their home lives, family problems, financial difficulties. Some kids are selling drugs -- you name it, they’re probably doing it.

“Those who do stay,” he said, “are going it over difficult odds. They want to do something different. They want to change their lives. And we can help them do that. But it’s hard to motivate them every single day to want to strive, to keep on striving. Just to get them here and keep them here, that’s the challenge,” he said.

What’s the secret of success? “When they feel they can make it – that’s when they make it. If they don’t feel that, they won’t.”

Hall, Taylor and the others know what their role is. Loving their younger neighbors into a fuller life. And if the love’s a bit tough at times, then that’s the way it has to be.

(As NCR went to press, Deborah Hardy had her GED and a job with Americorps. Windleton and Zortorres have just taken their GED tests and are awaiting results.)

NCR’s Newark visit continues an occasional series of “Other America” articles that began with an overview of the downside of the welfare-to-work program (NCR, April 4, 1999) based on studies done by Network, the Catholic social justice lobby. The first road trip was to the Navajo reservation at Four Corners, N.M., (NCR, Nov. 19, 1999) and the fight against plans to begin mining uranium through the people’s sole aquifer for drinking water. Subsequent “Other America” articles have included a stop in Mississippi (NCR, Sept. 22, 2000), and the “Immigrant Nightmare” (NCR, Sept. 29, 2000).

National Catholic Reporter, March 9, 2001