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Inside the success of Workshops Empowerment Inc.’s jobs program

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Kinisha Bester works with nuts and bolts at Workshops Empowerment Inc. in Avondale. (Marvin Gentry, For the Birmingham Times)
By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times

Beth Mitchell wanted to work but struggled to find a job. The Birmingham resident was diagnosed with depression and labored to find employment for five years—until she eventually found her way to Workshops Empowerment Inc. (WE Inc.).

“They taught me basic work skills because I had been out of the workforce for [so long],” said Mitchell. “They let me tour [the facilities] and decide what type of job setting I would like to start working in.”

WE Inc., a nonprofit organization based in Birmingham’s Avondale community, offers a broad range of vocational rehabilitation services geared toward helping people with disabilities become employed. It also has programs designed to support people reentering society from prison or rehabilitation facilities and those who have been out of work over a long period of time.

Through WE Inc., Mitchell had the opportunity to attend different types of classes, including sessions that helped her develop goal-setting and resume-building skills. In September 2020, the 53-year-old got a position at Lowe’s, a home-improvement retailer, in Trussville, Alabama. She started in the home and garden department watering plants and flowers—and now has a job that she loves.

“The best thing [the job] has done for me is it has built my self-esteem and self-confidence,” Mitchell said. “It also gets me out of the house, since we’re still in the [COVID-19] pandemic.”

WE Inc. Executive Director Susan Crow, who has been with the organization for 10 and a half years, said the program is important because it gives people like Mitchell a sense of identity and pride in who they are and what they do.

“Most of the people we serve have more than one disability and have multiple challenges stacked together,” Crow said, explaining that those challenges can include both mental and physical disabilities, such as ailments that may keep them from walking, hard-to-control diabetes, or seizure disorders.

Some people have more challenges than others, Crow added: “We had a woman we served several years ago who came up from a terrible situation, had some disabilities, and had also suffered a gunshot wound. … When she came to us, she was unable to lift more than 10 pounds or walk more than a few hundred feet before feeling wiped out. She might’ve been here six or eight months before she gained some strength and some stamina. She’s about to come up on her five-year work anniversary now.”

Tailored Services

WE Inc., which places an emphasis on helping people secure employment, served more than 900 individuals last year.

“We put people in food service, sometimes at an actual restaurant but most times at a facility like a nursing home or hospital,” Crow said. “One thing we try to do is tailor the job search to each individual.”

The organization, which has 17 employees on staff, offers job and career readiness classes, in addition to providing help with resumes, interview clothing, and job searches, including conducting mock interviews.

“If the employer or the person we’re serving is OK with it, we sit in on [job] interviews,” Crow said. “We do a lot of outreach on behalf of the people we serve. Also, after someone gets a job in the community, we can go in and offer job coaching.”

Nathalie Brasher, director of programs at WE Inc., plays a key role in tailoring job searches to participants—called “consumers” at WE Inc. Currently, she is working with about 20 people who are searching for employment.

“I put a lot of effort into making sure their resumes look good. I make sure they have the right outfits, even if I have to go out and shop with them to make sure they have it,” Brasher said. “My favorite part [of this job] is working with the people more so than overseeing the different programs. I like to find out what kind of work do they like to do.

“Anyone who first visits WE Inc. usually undergoes a full-day personality evaluation, [which helps us see] where they are academically, what career interests they have. … The more I get to know them, the easier it is to work together,” she said.

After a WE Inc. consumer secures a job, Brasher follows them for 90 days.

“I call, text, or go by their [place of employment] to speak to their employer. Sometimes, if they’re not doing so well, the employer might call me. For 90 days, they know they will have somebody,” she said.

WE Inc. consumers can spend two to eight weeks in the program: “It is really personalized,” Crow said.

“If a person has a great work history, then it’s not going to be that challenging to help them find a job. … We can immediately put together a resume and have that person out of here and working in two weeks. If a person needs a little bit more assistance and training, … we will help them build a resume and submit online applications, [as well as] teach them how to interview. So, typically, a person will move out of here in six to eight weeks.”

WE Inc. also has a broad range of partnerships to support its programs.

“We have really great employers who do facility management services and things like corporate cleaning,” Crow said. “One company, for example, is Falls Facility Services, which has contracts with local school systems and county courthouses, where our folks can go to and work.”

History

WE Inc.—named Workshops Inc. when it was founded in 1900 and renamed WE Inc. in 2021—was established by a group of Birmingham citizens who wanted to develop a program for the rehabilitation of people with disabilities, particularly those with vision impairments.

“Throughout [the organization’s] entire history, we have helped people with disabilities participate in the economy by having jobs or training for jobs,” said Crow. “Back in that time, an organization like ours would be the only place that people who were blind or had impaired vision or had other disabilities could work. It was a way for people to not only earn money but also have a sense of purpose. It gave them someplace to go and something to do all day.”

During the first half of the 20th century, people in the program created products for sale, including brooms and mops, and operated sewing rooms in which pajamas and sheets were made for hospitals and tuberculosis sanitariums.

The organization adopted the name WE Inc. in January to reflect changes in their field.

“Over the years, we have changed the way we deliver our services, but our mission has stayed the same. We’ve expanded it to also serve people with other barriers to employment,” Crow said.

COVID-19

Nearly a year ago, the global COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing shutdowns of many businesses and services—including WE Inc.

“We thought we would be closed for two weeks, but we ended up closing for seven weeks,” Crow said. “The most challenging thing about that was a lot of people we serve and who are looking for jobs really need face-to-face connection. Not only that, but we provide employment, too. We were able to pay [our employees] half wages for four weeks. When we got our [Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)] loan, we were able to bump everybody up to their typical wages.”

While the facility was closed, case managers still worked with consumers via online conferencing services, such as Zoom.

True to the Mission

The WE Inc. facility reopened on May 11, 2020 after being closed because of the pandemic.

“It has turned out to be a real blessing because we’ve been able to have people spaced out since we [reopened],” said Crow. “People work six feet apart, we wear masks, and we take temperatures at the door every day. … We’ve been able to keep any spread from happening, and we’re holding on and keeping our fingers crossed because we’re not out of it by any means.”

The biggest change has been that the WE Inc. team has not been able to drive consumers to job interviews, but Brasher and Crow won’t let anything stop the organization from staying true to its mission.

“A job is a human right,” Crow said. “We all should have the opportunity to go out and contribute to our community. At the end of the day, it’s much more than a paycheck—it’s a sense of belonging, identity, and pride. … Sometimes people take these things for granted, but I think it’s a beautiful thing to have that pride in yourself and the fact that you are contributing to your community.”

Workshops Empowerment Inc. is located at 4244 3rd Ave. S., Birmingham, AL 35222. To learn more, visit www.weincal.org or call 205-592-9683.