Providing Jobs — and a New Life — For the Jobless
Ask Steve Swayne the best way to help the needy, and he doesn’t hesitate: Teach responsibility and life skills. Don’t give another handout.
That philosophy is the core of the groundbreaking nonprofit StepUp Ministry. Headquartered in the heart of North Carolina’s capital city of Raleigh, the group’s mission is to partner with adults and children in the shared goal of achieving stable lives through job and life-skills training.
“What we do here is not rocket science, but it’s incredibly needed in our culture, and it’s having a mammoth impact on the people we’re serving,” said Swayne, who joined StepUp as executive director in March 2008.
White Memorial Presbyterian Church, located inside the Raleigh beltline, birthed StepUp in 1988. Originally envisioned as a means of delivering transitional housing to families who were homeless or on the brink of homelessness, StepUp now focuses on teaching job aptitude and providing spiritual, parental, relational, and financial grounding for the disadvantaged.
The ministry’s track record is stellar. It placed 314 adults in jobs in 2011, with 86 percent remaining employed after six months. The ministry has its own share of skin in the game — of its 32 employees, almost 20 percent came through the StepUp program and now work full-time for the ministry.
The innovative approach — a hand up, not a handout — has caught the attention of the movers and shakers in North Carolina for its simplicity and effectiveness.
“The StepUp process reflects the realities of life. That’s why it works,” Swayne said.
What defines StepUp’s approach? Swayne lists three components: transparency, accountability, and compassion.
“If our donors want to see a person tracked through our whole process — from jobless and poor to employed and prospering — we can show them,” Swayne said. “That’s transparency and accountability. It’s about more than just reporting numbers. It’s about showing concrete results.”
On the compassion front, StepUp empowers the poor to become stable and frees them from the bonds of a welfare system that often perpetuates, rather than reduces, poverty.
“Enabling people to earn their own way in life gives respect and dignity, traits that everyone needs,” Swayne said.
Although welcoming everyone, the ministry sets parameters for applicants: They must be of working age, be free of addiction, have no pending criminal charges, and be able to present a valid Social Security card.
After meeting these basic requirements, individuals embark on StepUp’s multi-faceted path to financial, relational, and spiritual freedom. The ministry’s weeklong Job Training Workshop is the first leg of the journey.
Without a job — and the responsibility and self-respect that accompany it — stability and prosperity are impossible. But it’s hard to find a job without the right tools.
StepUp’s Job Training Workshop paves the way for participants to gain stable employment in their community. During the 32 hours of classroom instruction, students learn personal responsibility, interviewing and networking skills, conflict resolution approaches, goal-setting abilities, and job-hunting tactics.
Reginald Harrington, a man enrolled in the Job Training Workshop in the summer of 2012, praised the instruction as similar to that of a technical college. “The classes and the little workshops that we do, they are very professional and informative,” he said. “Everybody in the class really wants to be here.”
To reflect real-world realities, participants must show up on time and pay attention — or they’re out the door. “This ministry is incredibly compassionate to people,” Swayne said, “but there are specific guidelines that people have to move themselves to. And if they don’t, we’re not going to pass them through. We treat ourselves like a college.”
The vast majority of adults that come through the career workshop have a criminal background, making employment even more difficult. Acknowledging that stumbling block, StepUp works with businesses in the Raleigh area to give formerly incarcerated individuals a second chance.
That emphasis on compassion and forgiveness has won praise from North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue, who called StepUp “an example of how a community organization can actually, with very few resources, help ex-offenders get the job skills they need.”
Melissa Wilson had a felony on her record when she first sought help from StepUp. After she graduated from the Job Training Workshop, she struggled through a three-month dry spell without any job prospects in sight.
“My background was a major hurdle for employers,” Wilson said.
In an unexpected blessing, she got two offers on the same day — one from a collections agency, the other from StepUp to work as an employment recruiter. She chose StepUp in a heartbeat.
“Being in the position I am in now is such a blessing, because I get to go out and advocate for people with a background like I had, and just ask people to give other people a chance,” Wilson said. “There is so much promise in our people, but if you never take the time to look inside, you’ll pass up good folks.”
A job is important, but it won’t translate into stability apart from practical life skills. That’s why StepUp created a 12-month Life Skills workshop for graduates of the Job Workshop Training who are successfully holding down a job. The coursework helps students break the behavioral patterns that have kept them in poverty, such as substance abuse, consumer debt, and harmful relationships.
Phases of the workshop include spiritual and personal development, goal setting and financial literacy, relationship development, and career and credit development. The training also includes access to affordable housing, scholarships to further individuals’ academic or vocational pursuits, reliable transportation, health care, and even business attire.
Because 80 percent of the adults enrolled in the Life Skills workshop have dependent children, StepUp also offers programing designed specifically with children and young adults in mind. Topics covered include how to interact with others, how to differentiate between wants and needs, how to budget money, and how to maintain personal health.
The goal is to break the generational chains of poverty. “Our mission in our children’s program is to have none of the children become adults in StepUp — that they would learn the job and life-skill responsibilities that their parents didn’t learn,” Swayne said.
Greensboro — and beyond
Swayne hopes to replicate the StepUp model in other cities around North Carolina. The ministry opened a new franchise in Greensboro in September 2012.
“If we do the Greensboro pilot well, we can do anything with this,” Swayne said.
The John William Pope Foundation has been an instrumental partner in StepUp’s success in Raleigh. Beginning in 2010, the Pope Foundation has invested nearly $400,000 in the ministry. The lion’s share came through the Foundation’s 25th anniversary dinner. Around 500 people attended, and all proceeds — nearly $300,000 — benefited the ministry.
The fund will enable StepUp to expand its jobs program in Raleigh from 325 placements in 2010 to 600 placements by 2014.
Wherever the future takes his ministry, Swayne hopes that more and more people will see the benefits of a responsibility-centered, results-oriented approach to helping the poor.
“We’re driven to teach this stuff, because it works,” he said.