From keys to calls.
Charles Griffin was busy at the bakery.
The Bronx resident had nabbed a spot at the eatery two years ago after enrolling in a workforce curriculum at the HOPE program following his incarceration. The new position buoyed his spirits, as did the confidence his employers showed in him.
“They gave me keys to the store,” Griffin said. “There was a sense of trust, even after what I had been through. I felt such achievement.”
But the coronavirus shutdown cost him his job, and the loss threatened to undermine his fledgling sense of security.
The fallout from the coronavirus has proven a true adjustment for workers like Griffin – as well as for the HOPE Program, the workforce development program that gave him his start at the bakery.
Far from business as usual, the onset of COVID-19 has forced nonprofits and community-based organizations to adapt to a new reality of social distancing, unable to provide in-person services during the pandemic.
The HOPE Program, which provides career training to underserved New Yorkers, is no exception.
“We had about 75 people who were currently in career training when we paused our onsite programming,” said HOPE Executive Director Jennifer Mitchell.
“We told every student and staff member to stay home. We thought we’d be doing remote programming.”
The HOPE Program consists of a 175-hour training curriculum that includes work readiness preparation, digital and financial literacy, soft skills coaching, and wellness education.
“None of which had ever been done by us remotely before,” Mitchell remarked. “We’ve always done everything in person.”
Since its inception in 1984, The HOPE Program has placed more than 7,500 people in employment.
“Our ultimate goal is not just to help someone get a job, but a sustainable career,” said Mitchell. “We provide foundational support for people. Once you graduate from our program, we continue to provide services. We have a motto of ‘HOPE for Life.’”
HOPE’s programs include OSHA certification and a 10-week paid training program for coating rooftops to increase energy efficiency.
New York’s COVID-19 “pause” order meant that HOPE’s staff needed to quickly transition to teaching classes online.
The organization learned that not all their students had a computer or Internet access at home.
“We were able to give out Chromebooks and also mobile WiFi hotspots for those who had no internet connectivity,” Mitchell said.
The program also started daily check-ins with participants to see what they needed beyond training.
Some needed diapers for their child or household items, Mitchell said. Others needed food.
“We thought, let’s continue to do what we do best, which is prepare people to work, but let’s also figure out what people’s individual needs are,” remarked Mitchell.
Since March 13, The HOPE Program has connected with over 300 students and graduates. Mitchell said The HOPE Program was able to supply diapers and other essentials and connect people with food resources.
Through a grant from the Robin Hood Foundation, The HOPE Program was able to provide emergency cash subsidies to graduates who needed it.
In recent weeks, The HOPE Program has already conducted a virtual recognition ceremony for a recently completed class, OSHA certification training, and a
workshop on solar panel maintenance and installation.
The organization has also continued to place graduates in jobs during the pandemic, including several for online grocer FreshDirect, which has seen a massive spike in demand due to the coronavirus.
Other graduates, including Griffin, were placed in jobs for a call center that answers 311 calls for the city.
Griffin now finds himself answering inquiries related to coronavirus.
“Anything having to do with social distancing, testing sites, food services. It’s a great job ‒ I’m learning a lot,” said Griffin, who has become a sounding board at times for people struggling during the pandemic.
“A lot of people are hurting out there,” he said. “It’s emotional. You’re dealing with human beings.
Mitchell said the need for job placement will be even greater in New York City due to the pandemic.
“This city is going to struggle, the most vulnerable are going to suffer,” she remarked. “There are people living on the brink and they’ll need to get back to work.”
Mitchell suggested that the remote programming model could still be employed by The HOPE Program once the pandemic subsides.
“We are certainly viewing this as something that can be continued with success after coronavirus,” she said. “Perhaps it can be expanded, such as allowing someone who is incarcerated to take some of our programming online and then when they get out, they’ll do the in-person training. We’re counting on these practices to be sustainable.”
Griffin said The HOPE Program had never stopped providing support. In addition to helping him acquire the new job, the HOPE team has kept active the lines of communication with him and fellow participants – using text messages, email, and phone calls – during the pandemic.
“I’m looking at my phone and I see info from them,” Griffin said. “They’re all working from home and they’re staying in contact with us, letting us know they’re there for us. They have always been there for me.”