STEP Graduates Its 3rd Class

IMG_7262“I really wasn’t doing anything with my life and was in a slump,” Johnny Phal said of a time before the fateful day a few months ago when his cousin showed him a flyer for CBA’s Supported Training Education Program (STEP) she saw at the laundromat.

Earlier this month, Phal, now employed by medical device manufacturing company Nypro, Inc., was one of seven graduates of the third group of students to complete STEP.

“It changed my life,” he said.

Launched in the fall of 2016, STEP is a six-week, 150-hour workforce development program run by CBA Workforce Development Program Manager Sako Long and Coordinator Will Ren.

Participants, who must be 18 or older and hold a high school diploma or equivalent, learn and practice soft skills that make a successful employee like how to deal with stressful situations at work, the importance of a strong work ethic, how to act professionally and as a team player, as well as ho to craft a resume and write a cover letter. They are also given financial literacy education so they can make the most out of the money they begin to earn once they go to work.

Following completion of the program, each graduate is placed in an entry-level job at a manufacturing company through a partnership with staffing agency Operon, provided with free transportation to and from work for a year through a partnership with QRyde, and 18 months of follow-up case management.

Since January, STEP has graduated 21 participants, 18 of whom are still working full-time — one was injured; one is working part-time and one is enlisting in the U.S. Army.

The most recent graduates include: Phal, Lil Sam Sum, Maria Cruzado-Rivera, Michelle Gath, Hanifah Serunjogi, Sokreth Chan and Vattana Thach.

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“This is a new beginning,” said CBA Workforce Development Program Coordinator Will Ren. “We will be working constantly with you as friends and coaches over the next 18 months.”

Thach, who has been involved with DIY Lowell, learned about the program when he heard CBA Executive Director Yun-Ju Choi speak about it at a neighborhood meeting.

“When I heard that graduates are guaranteed a job I couldn’t believe it – that is not something I had ever done before,” he said.

Thach said the classes didn’t feel like “school,” as they group learned negotiation and teamwork skills through a variety of exercises, as well as how to write professional resumes and cover letters.

“After three weeks I started to see Sako and Will as uncles – maybe because they are Asian,” laughed Thach. “They showed us you can be hard working and professional, but still personable.”

“I recommend this program to anyone who is looking to improve themselves as a person or their professional work ethic,” said Thach, now working for Wish Design, a 30-year-old custom design and screen printing company that recently moved from Lawrence to Lowell.

Gath said before she fund STEP she was throwing herself a “self-destruction pity party,” having recently left her job after being injured and working in unsafe conditions.

STEP, she said, boosted her self-confidence and helped her overcome her fear of failure.

“I have a new job, a list of goals and I am more organized, and I learned that education doesn’t stop after we graduate,” Gath said. “I no longer feel lost.”

For more information about STEP, contact Sako Long at sako.long@cbacre.org or Will Ren at will.ren@cbacre.org

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What is CBA Anyway?

Since 1982, the Coalition for a Better Acre has developed 476 units of affordable rental housing and 50 homes for first-time homebuyers in the Merrimack Valley.

But, our work doesn’t end with housing.

Community Building

In recent years the focus of our mission has shifted to ending the cycle of poverty and leading families on the path to economic self-sufficiency. Doing so includes building not only safe, warm, affordable housing, but also programming that provides economic, educational, community building and civic empowerment opportunities.

YES (Youth Educational Success): Last year CBA launched YES, an after-school program that serves 25 neighborhood kids in grades 1-8 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. four days a week. The mission is to provide academic support and open the door to activities and experiences they otherwise would not be able to access.  In addition to homework help and an afternoon snack, the kids engage in arts & crafts, STEM activities, cooking classes, Taekwondo and Girl Scouts.  Earlier this year, a group of older kids in the program designed and launched their own blogs through a partnership with Kids in Tech, Inc. They are also exposed to college life through interaction with Middlesex Community College Service Learning students, as well as career options through a series of Career Day speakers.

STEP (Supported Training Education Program): The workforce development arm of our organization, STEP recently graduated its second group of students.  The six-week program equips high school graduates and GED recipients with the skills they need for career success and places them in entry-level positions within medical device manufacturing companies in Devens; graduates are provided with free transportation to and from work for one year through CBA’s partnership with transportation company QRyde. The program includes financial education and case management to help ensure graduates’ success once the official training is completed.

Financial Opportunity Center: Since 2007 the Financial Center has counseled more than 1500 Merrimack Valley homeowners in foreclosure prevention and reported an average success rate four percent higher than agencies providing similar services nationwide. As the number of foreclosures dwindle, the Center has begun to focus more of its resources on financial counseling and financial literacy education. The staff would like to expand their reach to provide basic financial literacy education to members of STEP. Incorporating basic financial literacy, such as how to fill out a W4 form, understanding how checking accounts and direct deposit work and how to best use your bank, into the STEP program is a natural way to help ensure their employment success and is in tune with our mission of helping to make people self-sufficient.

Civic Engagement and Community Building: Building community and empowering residents to be more involved in their city is central to our mission. To that end, we work to provide outreach to members of the community to help them learn about the issues facing the city. We recently hosted a successful informational meeting about the options for a new Lowell High School that drew more than 200 people. In recent years we have held fun, informational events to introduce candidates running for City Council, School Committee and State Representative to voters and are holding monthly community dinner aimed at bringing information and resources to residents in a fun, family-friendly venue. At the end of April, 300 people joined our 30th Annual Acre cleanup and we team up with the ACTION neighborhood group each June for their Acrefest party on the North Common and for National Night Out each August.

We need your help to continue and expand upon this important programming and continue increasing opportunities and quality of life for the residents of the historic Acre neighborhood, the first stop for so many immigrant groups and home to many proud Lowellians.

We will be holding our annual fundraiser – 6 Degrees of the AcreJune 22 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the beautiful former Saint Jean Baptiste Church on Merrimack St.  The event, which will include food from a variety of ethnic Acre restaurants, entertainment, exhibits and raffles, will attract more than 250 professionals, business owners, and civic leaders from Greater Lowell.

For tickets and sponsorship opportunities, visit: 6Degrees

 

 

 

STEP Graduation

Five Graduates STEP off on a New Adventure

For nearly 20 years Ali Abolhassani worked as a computer hardware technician/manager at Mahab Ghodss, a consulting engineering firm in Tehran, Iran.

IMG_0273But seven months ago, the 54-year-old newly arrived immigrant to the United States found himself starting at the bottom, working as a driver’s helper for UPS.

“It was cold,” laughs Ali. “Living here is good for us, but it is hard for me. I don’t have any background here so I have to start at the minimum point. But it is easier here than in Iran to improve your life. I work hard and have a lot of enthusiasm and I’m sure I can improve very quickly in this country.”

On Friday afternoon Ali stepped up onto the first rung of the ladder leading to a successful career in his new home when he joined four others, including his wife Marjan Ashrafian, in graduating from the Coalition for a Better Acre’s workforce development program, STEP (Supported Training Education Program).

It is the second class to graduate from the six-week training program, which was launched last fall and is led by Workforce Development Program Manager Sako Long and Program Coordinator Will Ren.

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CBA Workforce Development Program Manager Sako Long addresses the graduation.

Participants, who must be 18 or older and hold a high school diploma or equivalent, spend six weeks learning and practicing the soft skills that make a successful employee like how to deal with stressful situations at work, the importance of a strong work ethic, how to act professionally and as a team player. They are also given financial literacy education so they can make the most out of the money they begin to earn once they go to work.

Following completion of the program, each graduate is placed in an entry-level job at a manufacturing company in Devens through a partnership with staffing agency Operon, provided with free transportation to and from work for a year through a partnership with QRyde, and 18 months of follow-up case management.

IMG_0263“I’m really really excited about this program,” said CBA Executive Director Yun-Ju Choi. “It took almost 3 years and Sako to get this program going, but it will give these graduates the foundation of good skills they need to succeed. “

Marjan said since entering STEP her life has changed dramatically.

“When we came here we didn’t know about people, culture, customs,” she said. “I had no self-confidence because of my English. We learned so much and had so much fun every day; today I feel more confident and that is so valuable to me.”

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Ali added they learned about communicating, negotiating, thinking professionally and out of the box, as well as how to write a resume and cover letter, all critical skills to be successful in the workplace.

“My success will be the CBA and STEP program’s success,” he said.

Ali and Marjan applied for the immigration lottery to the U.S. in 2015 to give their son, Sepand, better opportunities than he would have in Iran. Today, the 17-year-old Lowell High School senior is excited about starting at Middlesex Community College in the fall.

Graduate Jeannette Caraballo had been struggling to find a job and a career path before she saw a flyer for STEP.

IMG_0270“I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try it,” she said. “It is a real opportunity for success and a better life.”

Jeannette said she learned a lot about herself in the program, as well as what it was to be well-rounded and practice self-control, accountability, and responsibility.

She added that one of the quotes of the day Sako shared with the class that stuck with her was “find what you love to do and then find someone who is willing to pay you to do it.”

“I now understand why he is so good at his job,” Jeannette said. “I am confident I now have the skills to become a successful leader one day.”

That confidence presented itself as Jeannette came to the aid of classmate Breanna Ortiz, who was too nervous to address the crowd alone. Jeannette read a statement Breanna wrote about her experience in the program and her hopes for the future.

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Graduate Jesus Perez started his remarks with a quote from T.S. Eliot that he felt summed up their experience.

IMG_0298“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

“Throughout my life I have struggled,” he said, before being halted by emotion, pausing and taking a breath. “I found a friend and she helped me and pushed me and it is because of her that I’m here.”

“I have learned a great deal,” Jesus said. “Especially from the role play, whether I was playing a supervisor or an employee – that was very important to me because I am a visual learner.”

He added he benefitted from one-on-one time with Sako and Will, who were always there when he or any of his classmates needed a little extra help or encouragement.

“I would recommend this program to all of my friends and anyone who needs a job or wants to learn new skills,” Jesus said. “We have reached our goal by reaching the end, but we have started a new beginning.”

The class then surprised their mentors by turning the tables and presenting Sako and Will with certificates of appreciation. A gesture that quickly turned into a group hug punctuated by tears and laughs.

“Over the last six weeks we have formed a very strong bond,” said Sako. “And that will continue on.”

IMG_0379At the reception following the ceremony, Ali cracked open a fortune cookie to reveal a appropriate fortune:

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