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 or Will Ren at


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