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Career Connections in Park Heights offers the jobless training and hope

When Toni Coleman walked into Career Connections in Baltimore's Park Heights a month ago, she saw the rows of computers and training classrooms she'd expected of a new employment center.

But Coleman, who's struggled for about a year to find work, said she hadn't expected the personal attention that helped her not only polish an outdated resume and ferret out job possibilities but regain some confidence. A volunteer at the center, run by St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore, sat down with her over several days to rewrite her resume and point her to some promising leads.

"Here, you have hands-on help," said Coleman, 68, a Woodlawn resident and former teacher, tutor and contract specialist for an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Someone is always available to help you."

Offering hope might not be as concrete as sharpening interview skills, but can be just as important, the center's directors say.

Career Connections is part of St. Vincent de Paul's revamped workforce development initiative aimed at helping the jobless and under-employed find stable careers. It addresses a pressing need in Baltimore, where the unemployment rate was nearly 11 percent in July.

In areas such as Park Heights, where boarded-up houses outnumber occupied ones in many blocks, some people have resigned themselves to always having to work two or three low-wage jobs that offer short-term survival but no real future, said Tona Cravioto, the center's senior director of workforce development.

St. Vincent de Paul opened Career Connections in the St. Ambrose Center on Park Heights Avenue in March and a similar center in the nonprofit's Beans & Bread soup kitchen in Fells Point in May. The nonprofit serves 50,000 people a year through 13 programs offering emergency shelter, transitional housing, child services and job skills training.

"The new approach is [for the client] to see getting a job not as the ultimate goal but just the beginning," Cravioto said. "We work with clients on short-term goals on a weekly basis, to get ready, to get a job, to build a career and to reclaim their lives."

Along the way, career specialists remind their clients that "we do not have a magic stick where we can get you a job tomorrow," Cravioto said. "It's a lot of work."

In its first six months, the Park Heights center has served about 90 job seekers a month. Directors hope to place 300 clients in jobs they keep for at least six months in the first year.

The St. Ambrose Center in Park Heights also offers GED classes as well as job training programs in early childhood education, nursing assistant certification and food service, which about 220 people attended in the last year. One classroom is set up like a preschool, while another replicates a hospital room with beds and equipment where nursing students can get practical experience.

In the past, the center had been used as a food pantry and community center and for after-school programs, which have expanded and moved to other locations.

Using a one-on-one approach, the center's five staff members and about 10 volunteers work to determine clients' needs, which range from basic skills to more complex job searches, and build from there.

"The idea is not to just get people into jobs but to get them into careers where they can grow," said Jennifer A. Summers, development and marketing vice president for St. Vincent de Paul. "The idea is to move families out of poverty."

Mark Daniels, a 38-year-old Park Heights resident, has been in and out of jobs, including temporary office jobs and telemarketing work, but now has a goal of getting into the human resources, community outreach or workforce development field. About a month ago, he began coming to Career Connections, where he makes phone calls and does computer searches for jobs, and where he also found he could volunteer and build skills in workforce development.

The center's job skills programs have helped him understand "the thinking in the work world and being able to maneuver and avoid certain pitfalls," Daniels said.

In the job skills and readiness classes she teaches, career development specialist Regina R. Brown finds that many of her students have become accustomed to working more than one low-wage job with no benefits.

And many see no way out.

"They could use a huge dose of hope, just getting people to see this [job success] can happen for you too, that it's time to believe something good can happen for you," Brown said.

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