Tears in his eyes and with his family cheering him on, Kim Meyers stood behind a lectern Thursday and settled his gaze on something he hadn’t seen in years, if ever: a clear path forward.
“I always wanted to do something with myself,” he told the crowd packed into a Gallier Hall ballroom. “But Strive showed me how to do something with myself.”
Meyers was one of 28 men and women who graduated Thursday from Strive New Orleans, a four-week, city-sponsored program that provides soft skills training to people struggling to find work.
The pilot program offered conventional job-seeking tips on topics like résumé preparation and self-presentation but also more unorthodox guidance, such as how to overcome personal issues that may have been hindering the participants’ professional success.
“It really is about getting to the heart of why you’re stuck,” said Ashleigh Gardere, senior adviser to Mayor Mitch Landrieu for economic development. “Most of the time is spent working on the individual.”
Some program participants have been victims of, witnesses to or perpetrators of crimes. Others had spent years downtrodden. Many were attending their first graduation ceremony.
All were seeking a way out of their present lives and into new ones.
“I want to help people,” Meyers said. “I want to help people become people, just like y’all helped me become somebody.”
Many of the graduates, several of whom spoke through tears, said the program helped them grow in confidence. They described feeling hopeless, lacking focus and having little determination when they arrived at what they thought was a job fair four weeks ago.
“When we came in, we were broken. We didn’t know how to fix ourselves,” graduate Crystal Fudge said. “You were Charity (Hospital) for us.”
The job readiness program is part of the city’s Network for Economic Opportunity initiative. The initiative was announced last year as part of a response to a 2013 report by Loyola University that found more than half of working-age black men in New Orleans were unemployed in 2011.
The initiative, which Gardere leads, is similar to the city’s JOB1 program, except that it focuses on disadvantaged job seekers, including but not limited to the 52 percent of black males identified in the Loyola study as not having jobs.
The city hopes to begin a new Strive class every six weeks.
Thursday’s graduates included 12 women and 16 men. Five were over age 50.
The training program is funded by a $500,000 grant from Wells Fargo. The graduates are not guaranteed jobs.
“Nobody is guaranteed anything except the opportunity to compete,” Gardere said. “And now we know they’re ready.”
The heads of several city departments with vacancies, as well as representatives from so-called “anchor institutions” that have partnered with the city on its training effort, were on hand for the ceremony.
The workforce case managers and other supportive service providers who worked with the trainees during the program will continue to check up on them for two years.