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– by Ken Williams, President & CEO – Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas

Two years ago as I was sitting at a Wyandotte County Economic Development Council meeting, I was taken aback by the discussion. The business and industry leaders in the room were frustrated because they could not fill available jobs. In fact, 63% of Wyandotte County companies were hiring.

That sounded like great news to an agency like ours. Unfortunately, as we tried to match these jobs, we found that those we serve were not only underqualified, but they faced multiple and serious barriers to attaining the necessary education and training.

The challenge was on for Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas to create a program where we could help several people a year overcome absolutely everything that stands between them and real income. If we could do that, we could have a deep impact on poverty in the poorest county in Kansas. Kim Brabits, Vice-President, Program Operations, spearheaded a team to help develop what would become St. Rita’s Barrier Removal Center.

A planning grant from the Hall Family Foundation helped us research the problems in depth, design the program and evaluate its feasibility. The research team from Rockhurst University assisted us and found that there were 1,451 open positions among 200 companies surveyed. There were openings for machinists, welders, diesel mechanics, truck drivers and forklift operators – all jobs that demand trade certifications, but all paying between $40,000-$60,000 per year.

For the people we serve, those are life-changing wages, not just for them, but for their whole families. This fall, we are excited to partner with Kansas City Kansas Community College to launch the pilot program. For our first group of six students, I believe that their journey is just getting started.

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