South End organization joins Church Council to help troubled teens

Finding a job can be a daunting task, especially for teenagers who have little to no work experience. Being a teenager with a criminal record can make finding a job even more difficult, but there is help available.

Ready4Work, a job assistance program jointly funded by the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Department of Justice, was established locally three months ago to help 14 to 18-year-olds who have been incarcerated for more than 90 days.

The program provides job readiness training, employment placement assistance, faith-based mentoring, education resources, educational and GED services, case management, and workshops to provide these services.

"The program came about as a result of the Bush administration's faith-based initiatives, whereby, faith institutions were given an opportunity to reach out to youth in need and offer hope to them as they return to the communities in which they live," said Michael A. Jackson, program director of the Seattle Ready4Work program and a member of the Church Council of Greater Seattle.

As program director, Jackson is responsible for contacting local churches to recruit volunteers to serve as mentors as well as managing the budget, which currently stands at $231,000 per year for the next three years.

Although brand new in Seattle, Ready4Work is established in several cities around the country including Portland, Los Angeles, Houston, and Philadelphia. The Seattle program is currently co-operated by the Church Council of Greater Seattle and the South End's Center for Career Alternatives.

"Seattle Ready4Work brings together two mature organizations from different specialties that both offer promise for this program," said Jackson, who was a linebacker with the Seattle Seahawks in the early 80's. "Because job training is recognized as a best practice for prevention of juvenile crime, the Church Council teamed up with the Center for Career Alternatives as its primary partner in delivery of services."

Placing the past behind

The workshops Ready4Work offers run for 10 days over a course of two weeks with each session lasting about two and half hours. They are run by case managers Erik Chillman and Gerald Bradford of the Center for Career Alternatives (CCA).

So far, Chillman feels the first three workshops have gone very well and felt excited to watch the young people become more committed to the program, and subsequently their futures.

"The number of students (attending the workshops) is continuing to grow, and it appears that these young people are truly benefiting personally from the direct, realistic approach offered by myself and Gerald through the workshop," Chillman said.

One of the teenagers at the second workshop was Anita Galicia, 17, who was released in late October after being incarcerated for nine months.

"I got into a fight with a friend over a boy and I took her stuff from her," Galicia said. "When I got out, my parole officer told me (that there was) this program that can help me find a job."

Galicia has aspirations of owning her own restaurant featuring Nicaraguan cuisine one day and plans on going to either Seattle Central Community College or the Seattle Arts Institute to obtain her culinary degree.

"(Ready4Work) started talking to me in November and they got me a few interviews," Galicia said. "They help you change your life and better it and not sell dope and stuff."

Galicia also added that the program has helped her gain confidence and a feel for what being independent is all about.

During the workshop, the group got a good laugh when the young, ex-offenders snapped their heads around after hearing sirens going off outside the CCA building as an ambulance made its way down Rainier Avenue.

"It's okay guys, it's in your past now," said Chillman as he raised his hands and laughed.

After a couple more laughs and poking fun at each other, things got serious again as Chillman and Bradford engaged the teens in group discussion about how to talk to potential employers about their criminal pasts during job interviews.

"Don't lie, be honest and be yourself," said Bradford, as he talked about strategies on approaching job interviews.

Beyond the jobs

Although the specific job of the program is to provide assistance with finding work, the youth also have other needs said Peter Tsai, deputy director of the CCA.

"Our primary goal is the work side, but we are realizing that these kids need help going back to school," Tsai said. "Because they were incarcerated for so long, they're probably behind in school."

Realizing this, the teenagers are tested on their math and reading skills to see what level they're operating on and are then provided with GED preparation and GED testing. Additionally, Tsai and Jackson note that the kids receive help with the transition to a community college or training programs.

Tsai said that there has been a positive response from the community so far, and they have been getting phone calls from schools and parole officers.

However, both Tsai and Jackson, are still working hard to educate the community about the program, a task they say has been difficult.

"I think the biggest drawback for us at this time is the ability to get the word out about our program," Jackson said. "It seems that we just cannot reach the media in a way that would enable us to be more effective in the services we offer."

Jackson said Ready4Work is mostly being found out about through word of mouth and that he wants the program to be better known in order to help those who need its services.

But despite not yet being able to spread the word about Ready4Work, the organizers show a positive attitude when looking at how the program is progressing and seeing the upbeat responses of the teens.

"I feel that Seattle Ready4Work has gotten off to a good start after only three months. I think the youth that have participated in the program find it to be helpful in the sense that our case managers are not here to beat the youth up," Jackson said. "What we want to do is show them that we have a genuine desire to be of service to them as they transition out of incarceration."

Jackson also added that he wants the program's teenagers to understand that the people who are helping them also care about them as individuals and want them to be successful in their lives.

"So far, I think we are accomplishing this goal," Jackson said. "I know that we have much work to do, but I feel we are in this for the long haul."[[In-content Ad]]