Ruth Mott Report | Economic Opportunity
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Grantee Spotlight: Economic Opportunity



Specialized Employment Services, doing business as Flint STRIVE, is one grantee under the Ruth Mott Foundation’s economic opportunity priority area. Flint STRIVE received $260,065 from the Ruth Mott Foundation in 2017-18 for the Northside Impact Strategic Plan project under the Foundation’s economic opportunity strategy of job training.

Vanessa Terrell, clad in her blue graduation gown, stood in front of a room filled with family, friends and strangers and proclaimed her age: A “seasoned” 60 years.

“This is my first graduation,” she said proudly, pausing for a moment. “From anything.”

The room erupted in applause, and she explained why her young granddaughter was in the room.

“No matter what – no matter how many times you trip and fall, you can always turn it around,” she said. “It’s important to me that she knows that.”

Terrell was one of nine who graduated in May 2017 from Flint STRIVE’s north Flint initiative, a program funded by the Ruth Mott Foundation that provides a rigorous 15 days of job training to unemployed north Flint adults, including the long-term unemployed, disconnected youth, recovering addicts and the homeless.

Seventeen people signed up for the class, and about half made it to graduation day – an indication, instructors said, of how tough the program can be.

The goal of Flint STRIVE, which is part of an international job training and placement network, is to lift families out of poverty and transform the lives of at-risk populations by providing support and skills training that lead to livable wage employment. The program is designed to address employment barriers, like education, criminal history and history of substance abuse.

At the May 2017 graduation, the adult graduates ranged in age from 23 to 69 – and staff said the diversity of the group was one of its strengths in helping each other get through the program.

“Do not let your ZIP code or age or anything else define you,” Shari Walter, Lead Job Developer, told the graduates. “You guys are powerhouses – you’re achievers. And we are so proud of you.”

The program also implements a two-generational approach, encouraging participation from youth who have a parent or caregiver involved in the adult program. While STRIVE is still exploring the best way to measure the overall impact of this model, staff report anecdotal evidence of changes in parental engagement (e.g. paying attention to academic performance, doing activities together) and household stability (i.e. fewer utility shutoffs and not moving as frequently) among participants.

“We’re going to make sure we’re there every step of the way to make sure they get what they need, whether it’s housing or other needs,” said Phil Walker, Director of Training and Operations, as the graduation ceremony began. “They’re going away today with a help packet to make sure they walk away empowered.”

When compared to their peers in Flint and Genesee County, north Flint residents have lower levels of educational attainment and are more than twice as likely to be unemployed. STRIVE’s adult and youth job training programs employ an intensive, non-faith-based curriculum that identifies and addresses barriers to employment that are specific to each participant. Outcome data from the program indicates that STRIVE’s programs support job skill development for youth and adults and provide pathways to sustained, above minimum-wage employment for adult participants.

The intensive program includes soft skills development, career coaching, financial literacy training, completion of three employer-preferred certifications, and access to lifetime wraparound services. A case manager will provide regular contact for 24 months following graduation.

If at any time a Flint STRIVE graduate loses a job or falls on hard times, case workers follow up and provide assistance. Four of the graduates already had employment lined up as of graduation day, and STRIVE will continue to work with the others until they have jobs as well. Sixty-five percent of STRIVE graduates are placed in jobs within 30 days of graduation and 85 percent of graduates have a job within a year of completing the program.

“We’re going to make sure we’re there every step of the way to make sure they get what they need, whether it’s housing or other needs,” said Phil Walker, Director of Training and Operations, as the graduation ceremony began. “They’re going away today with a help packet to make sure they walk away empowered.”

Each of the graduates had to overcome his or her individual challenges in order to earn the certificate of completion. One woman was so shy she hardly ever spoke in front of others, the lead trainer said, and another rode her bike to class. A few others learned to shed outside associates who were poor influences or unsupportive of the new life they were trying to lead.

In 2017-18, STRIVE provided job training to more than 180 north Flint adults and youth with significant barriers to employment as well as compounding social and economic challenges such as child support arrearages, past-due utility bills, lack of appropriate work attire, and housing insecurity. While STRIVE continues to meet or exceed its stated goals related to employment placement and wages, the organization’s staff have noted that as the local job market has improved, the number of barriers facing clients referred to STRIVE has increased.

“This program is not easy,” Walker said. “You have to be weather tested and battle tested to get through life – and these people were here every day doing the work.”

During the graduation ceremony, graduates repeatedly referred to each other as family. Each of them thanked the trainers and other staff for helping them through the process.

“Thank you for bringing out what we already knew we had inside us,” said Jason Newman.

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