A young man paced in my doorway. Looking down, he said, "Goodwill saved my life.... I'm 31 years old and this is the first job I've ever had.... I spent my life hustling.... I'm the first person in my family to have a job." After getting arrested for selling drugs, he came to Goodwill San Francisco. He completed a two-week work-based assessment, was placed in transitional employment, and finally, a permanent job.
My first job after getting my master's degree was as an employment specialist at Goodwill where I often heard similar stories but never grew tired of them.
The interesting thing about this man is not that his life was turned around by our program, but that he was my co-worker. He had risen from dock worker to career advisor to criminal justice specialist (or "CJS," a type of case manager. This was one of the first things I learned about the non-profit world: that employees are often former clients.
I began at Goodwill in 2008 in a program called Back on Track (BOT) - a partnership between the non-profit and the District Attorney's office. BOT is an innovative prison-diversion program for first-time drug offenders. Sixty clients aged 18-30 participated in career-building activities for one year, at which time they graduated and had their felonies removed from their records. Our staff consisted of a director, coordinator, five CJSes, an employment specialist (me) and two assistants.
Although the educational credentials of my co-workers varied from high school diplomas to BAs to MSWs, their experience was solid; they had either worked in or been consumers of various social services: mental health, the foster system, substance abuse/recovery, etc. This was the second thing I learned about non-profits: that passion and experience sometimes trumps formal training.
At BOT, the case managers helped clients stabilize their lives, obtain work documents, get therapy, and work on other employment barriers. When clients were work-ready they came to me for help with the job search process. This was my first time working with ex-felons and I saw the overrepresentation of minority youth in the program. Most had work histories that consisted almost entirely of low-level short-term jobs. A few had vocational certificates or associates degrees, but many had not graduated high school. Even though I hailed from Richmond, California, a city known for its drugs and violence, my clients' lives seemed far worse than the childhood I knew. They were raised in poverty without skills or education and saw no way to support their families besides selling drugs. Some held legitimate jobs, but supplemented their low-wages with illegal activities.
Our mission was to expand our clients' opportunities. We sent them to job training, GED classes, and community college. All had entered a guilty plea to enter the program - meaning if they didn't comply with the rules they could be sanctioned. If they continued to misbehave, they might be asked to leave which meant a prison sentence of 3-5 years. For all the success stories we had, it was always sad to hear that a client had "caught another case" for "grinding" (selling drugs) again: we knew they were probably off to San Quentin state penitentiary. The saddest day was when two of our most successful clients were shot - and one died. I had just conducted an intake with the murder victim the day before. This was my third lesson: There will be some casualties - you can't save them all. Some of my favorite clients didn't make it through the program.
Despite the sad times, I loved my job and my intelligent, hard-working BOT clients. I saw great changes in the short time I worked with them: from hopeless to hopeful. They loved the resumes we created together; for some, it was the first time they had had a positive conversation about themselves.
I was also thrilled by all the training I was offered: a 12-week series called BEST Pro (Basic Employment Specialist Training Program), that I would eventually end up teaching; a seminar on domestic violence; a three-day course on working with ex-offenders; a workshop on Powerpoint. This is the fourth thing I learned: non-profits offer many opportunties for professional development to offset the lower salaries.
After seven months I was promoted to business relations specialist (BRS). Though my title was BRS, my role was career counselor. I performed the same work I did in BOT but also taught workshops and co-chaired a local job developer association. This was the fifth thing I learned about non-profits: there's great mobility and flexibility. Non-profits tend to experience high turnover - but that means talent can be rewarded sooner than in organizational cultures that are more rigid. Suddenly, the population I worked with expanded. My clients were all ages, all levels, and all backgrounds, including ex-offenders.
In my second position at Goodwill, I taught other career professionals in BEST Pro, served as co-chair of the Bay Area Coalition for Employment Development and developed two new workshops. This was the sixth thing I learned about non-profits: there are many opportunities for leadership.
After four months, I moved on from Goodwill to another One Stop closer to home. But while I was there, I added to my network, learned about non-profit culture and inter-agency collaboration, and even found a new niche in working with the prison reentry population. My first job turned out to be an amazing training ground.
Maureen Nelson, M.A., GCDF, CPRW is Senior Career Counselor at the Oakland Private Industry Council, which runs Oakland's One Stop Career Center. She is an instructor in the Global Career Development Facilitator program and a volunteer with the California Reentry Program at San Quentin, where she writes resumes for inmates about to parole. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.maureennelsoncareercoach.com.