by Susan Fotovich McCabe
Special to The Leaven
Getting an education or learning a new skill has always been important in gaining a competitive edge in the workplace. But perhaps now, more than ever, it’s critical.
The economic turbulence left in the wake of COVID-19 has resulted in staggering unemployment. Even before the pandemic, those individuals who were unemployed or underemployed were struggling.
In times like these, the St. Rita Program, a ministry of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, has become a much-needed career development resource.
“I am a legal immigrant from Kenya and a single mum. It was challenging for me to pay bills as well as upkeep for my daughter and I,” said Jane Waichigo of Olathe.
Waichigo was attending Johnson County Community College to earn her LPN in nursing when she learned of the St. Rita Program. The cost of a single e-book threatened to end her education.
“One day at college, I did not have the required e-book and it was super-expensive. I gathered the courage and approached my professor and told her that I could not do the required assignment because I did not have the book and I did not know when I would get it,” Waichigo said. “I cried so hard because I had tried to borrow money from friends and I could not get enough as the e-book did not have any financing option.”
Waichigo’s professor connected her with the staff at the St. Rita Program, which eventually allowed her to obtain her degree and a job in nursing. Along the way, she and other participants learn so much more. The program is designed to remove barriers for those who are unemployed or underemployed. It is for those who are motivated to break the cycle of poverty and change their life through educational and career advancement.
One of the root causes of poverty is unemployment or, in many cases, underemployment, according to Tracy Forbush, Catholic Charities’ Workforce Program senior manager.
“According to the 10th annual Greater Kansas City Workforce and Education Summit, hosted by Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), 60 percent of available jobs require postsecondary education, and over 345,000 adult Kansans have some college but no credentials,” said Forbush. “Helping our community access those credentials is imperative to breaking the cycle of poverty.”
The 2017 pilot program involved small cohorts of six participants, providing significant financial assistance for each person and intensive, tailored case management. The focus was on serving Wyandotte County residents through an educational partnership with Kansas City Kansas Community College-TEC.
Since that time, the program has evolved. While the amount of per- person financial assistance has decreased, it serves more participants and has expanded beyond Wyandotte County to include the cities of Atchison, Leavenworth, Lawrence, Topeka, Olathe and Overland Park.
“Our focus is on high-demand, high-earning-potential careers in the skilled trades, IT, health care and life sciences,” Forbush said. “We still provide intensive wraparound case management tailored to each client, financial assistance based on the individual’s budget and unique barriers and needs, and essential skills training to prepare participants for the workforce.
“The goal, however, remains the same: to strengthen individuals and families through a holistic approach to education and employment.”
Reaching your potential
While unemployment is most often talked about, underemployment remains just as significant a problem. A person is considered underemployed when he or she is working in a field below his or her skill level or ability, according to Catholic Charities Workforce Program specialist Sarah Larson.
“We have a client who completed his electrical tech certification but is struggling to find employment in that field so he has been working as a delivery driver for FedEx,” Larson said. “Our goal is to personally connect clients like him to employers in his field.”
As part of the program, participants get help with resumes, cover letters and preparing for interviews. Each participant completes the work ethics course called “Bring Your A Game” as well.
Jeremiah Higbee of Kansas City, Kansas, completed the St. Rita Program to earn his certification in electrical technology after dropping out of high school. Unfortunately, while a record of DUIs has impacted his ability to get a job in that field, he is thankful for what he learned.
“I flunked 7th grade twice and I was too old to stay in middle school so they put me in high school. Eventually, I dropped out of high school, got hooked up with the wrong crowd and messed up everything that was ever good in my life,” Higbee said. “But I love the St. Rita Program. They’ve done so much for me.”
Pride in your work
For Larson, watching participants gain confidence is the ultimate reward.
“St. Pope John Paul II speaks a lot about the importance of work in the [1981 encyclical] ‘Laborem Exercens.’ He says, ‘Work is a good thing for man, a good thing for his humanity because through work, man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being.’ I feel like his statement about fulfillment resonates the most with me as I assist St. Rita participants,” Larson said. “This is especially true when I see how excited a client is when they land a job interview or seeing them leave our office with so much confidence after spending hours working on their resume.”
To participate in the St. Rita Program, candidates must be unemployed or underemployed; display an interest in, and be eligible for, a degree or certificate program in a skilled trade, health care, IT or life sciences career; be committed to engaging in intensive case management with Catholic Charities staff; and have at least an intermediate literacy in the English language.
The program is always looking to partner with area employers and other organizations.
Interested candidates, employers and partners are encouraged to send an email to: [email protected] or call (913) 621-1504, extension 1150. Even during the pandemic, the staff is able to leverage technology to work with candidates.
And there’s a surprising end to the St. Rita journey. Despite struggling financially, and not required, many of the participants tell the program’s staff they can’t wait to find employment and give back to the St. Rita Program.
“Everyone is so grateful when they begin to see the end in sight,” Larson said. “Most of the time, they tell us they can’t wait to get a better job so they can start paying it forward to help others.”