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YWCA Strive Helps Underserved Job Seekers Overcome Employment Barriers

In a time when employment and opportunities appear dim, YWCA Strive of Bloomington-Normal offers hope for those determined to seek redirection toward purpose.

Many people face employment or underemployment hurdles that block economic security. YWCA Strive is a free program to them people break down those barriers. Strive helps participants develop professional habits and skills for the workplace.

It’s a participants-based program that tailors its services toward the needs of members. It also facilitates discussions about social issues in the community. At the end of the program, participants receive a Professional Certificate to help them enter a living-wage career.

The program began in July. Now, The first class just celebrated the completion of the 26-week hybrid classes. The four graduates now have jobs at livable wages.

Strive facilitator Candice Byrd said one of the most rewarding parts of the program is watching participants gain confidence and blossom into effective communicators.

Strive facilitator Candice Byrd speaks with graduates during Strive graduation ceremony.

 “I have watched folks not say a peep from the beginning to walking up and being like, ‘Listen,’ being able to help the next person like, ‘Yeah, let me help you with that in case you might not understand that’ whereas first, they were like, ‘I don't know.’ So that, to me, has been amazing to watch.”

Byrd said the emphasis on a livable wage is essential because one can hold a job, but still live paycheck to paycheck. She said Strive’s goal is for participants to sustain themselves after paying bills and other expenses.

Byrd said the common barriers to employment include the school-to-prison pipeline when students are pushed out of schools and into prisons, and lack of funding for basic needs to achieve success.

“In order to do educational things, like Internet access, do you have a computer? Do you have transportation to get to class? Child care? Can this person do what their actual costs are? And that's where the stress comes in," she said. "So, we're really trying to pinpoint some of those big issues and to get around them, like let's take all of that out of your way. And you tell me what your dreams are, what your goals are and we’ll get you there.”

The program teaches participants a number of skills and strategies, including computer techniques, cybersecurity, public speaking, conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and financial literacy. They’re taught through a mix of virtual classes and in-person discussions, where they learn how to facilitate meetings in a board room.

Labyrinth Made Goods, founded by YWCA, offers apprenticeships and permanent assignments to women who have experienced incarceration. Director Kate Brunk said Strive program members get to practice the skills taught in a workplace setting, adding it makes a difference in their professionalism.

“I think the really cool thing is that that's something that's going to help them be a step ahead of other candidates that have had more of those opportunities,” she said.

One of Strive's graduates is Jackie Heim, an ISU alum and a mother of three. She said COVID-19 disrupted her job as a server. She felt directionless when she came across an ad for the Strive program on Facebook and joined in hopes of going back to school.

“I remember thinking of the first couple of classes, ‘Can I do this?’” Heim said. “And in my head, I'm like well, if you can't, you can always just say you can't do it. This isn't a class you're paying for. There's no pressure, right? I'm not going to go away feeling like a failure, that I didn't do something or follow through. That being said, I'm very happy that I followed through, and I did all that because it was a commitment for us and I was happy to make the commitment.”

Heim said Strive has helped her pursue education again by providing the resources and support she needs as a first-generation college student. She also has an interest in entrepreneurship, hoping to open a farm. She said her favorite memory from the program is hearing from local leaders in the community, including Normal City Council member Chemberly Cummings.

“I remember going home and I was telling my boyfriend. I'm like, I got to meet somebody I voted for ... that's so cool. That's almost like democracy in action, right? That meant a lot to me.”

Anntionetta Rountree talks with the other graduates about goals after Strive.

Another graduate joined the program to rebuild her life after prison. Anntionetta Rountree is building a foundation for her late daughter, Rica, who was murdered when she was 8 while Rountree was in prison. Rountree now has a job at a cost reduction consultant agency in Bloomington, and said  she encourages those contemplating a new direction in life to take advantage of Strive.

“I just came for 26 weeks and got all this knowledge. And it cost me nothing," she said. "The connections that I'm building, I have a job through here. My apprenticeship was turned into a job. So I mean, What else are you doing? If you really want to make a change, you got to change.”

Rountree said Strive has helped her become calmer, more assertive, and improved her networking skills needed to thrive in the workplace. She said the Strive community is like a sisterhood and she cherishes how the women in the program have grown together and lifted each other up in the middle of the pandemic.

“We are all people who are trying to live our best lives and maybe have made some mistakes, even with the instructors," she said. "They're in their position. However, they're not different from us. And they make that certainly clear. We don't always have good days, we don't always have bad days, we don't always get it. But they've always made everybody in the class feel equal. It's just, it's amazing because we all are growing and we all lift each other up. And we're always there to hold each other when we can't be lifted or stand on our own.”

Byrd noted the program also is open to men. She said Strive demonstrates theYWCA's mission to “eliminate racism, empower women, and promote peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all” by educating participants on all dimensions of racism and teaching women to advocate for themselves.

“Giving them that confidence, teaching them about negotiating workplace benefits and values. When you walk into that interview, you know what your worth (is). If they want you bad enough, feel it out. You should be able to ask, “Okay, I need a little bit more money because (my) kids need this and I need this, then I'll take the job.”




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Darnysha Mitchell is an Illinois State University student and reporting and social media intern at WGLT.