by Jill Ragar Esfeld
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Since 1995, Bishop Sullivan Center has been at war — fighting poverty and homelessness by helping the poor find employment.
And it’s winning.
Last year alone, more than 400 people overcame barriers to employment and found work though the center’s two locations in Kansas City, Missouri.
“Just about everybody who’s interested [has found work],” said Kathleen Kennedy, manager of Employment Services and Emergency Assistance. “If they hang in there, they’re going to get work.”
Simply put, it is a wildly successful program.
And now, Bishop Sullivan has come to Kansas.
Answering a need
The agency started out at the administrative office in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, and, in 2009, added a second Missouri location at St. James Church.
Last year, administrators started looking for a Kansas location.
“Because we knew that Kansas City, Kansas, was economically oppressed,” said Kennedy, “we already knew the need was there.
“In our reaching out in the community and trying to find some space, Catholic Charities quickly said, ‘Hey!’”
In January of this year, Bishop Sullivan Center opened an office in space provided by Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas at its 2200 Central location.
The center is ready to help any low- income individuals 18 years old or older with barriers to finding employment.
“We’re privately funded,” said Kennedy. “Our only criterion is we focus on people who are out of work, or unable to get enough hours — so, underemployed.”
The center has served clients as old as 80, but the average age is 45.
“Typically, we’re seeing people at entry level,” said Kennedy. “Their work history is pretty shot — maybe they’re just coming out of prison, with a chopped-up work history.”
Many of the clients are homeless; most are struggling with barriers that range from a lack of identification, to transportation issues, to illiteracy.
“One thing I love about our program is the diversity of the clients we serve,” said Kennedy.
Though Kennedy uses the term “serve” for what she does, in reality, clients are taught to serve themselves.
“We don’t do anything for people,” said Kennedy. “We work in partnership with them, so they can do things for themselves.”
Clients accepted into the program are given an orientation Kennedy calls “Job Search 101.” It consists of six modules of topics related to getting and keeping a job.
Each client is assigned an individual counselor who works with them one-on-one until they get hired.
“We do a lot of job counseling,” said Kennedy. “We see people who struggle with jobs that didn’t work out.
“We need to examine why and help them think smarter, behave differently.”
The center also does what it can to remove barriers that have prevented clients from finding and keeping a job.
“If I’m broke and I’m looking for work,” explained Kennedy, “I’m going to need basics — and it runs the gamut.
“We try to hit the ground running with each person. We help with occupational supplies. We do transportation help.
“We help with rent, utilities — anything that’s going to impact the process.”
Next on the agenda is getting a resume completed and then introducing clients to the center’s computer resource lab where the job search begins in earnest.
Because the average age of clients is 45, and most can’t afford access to a computer, they’ve never had an opportunity to develop computer skills.
So, the computer resource lab can be the most challenging barrier of all.
“It petrifies them,” said Kennedy. “They’re ready to quit.
“They say, ‘I can’t do this.’”
That’s when computer trainer Rick Diaz steps in.
A former systems analyst in corporate America, Diaz has been with Bishop Sullivan Center for six years.
He knows how difficult it is for those without computer skills to find employment.
“Basically, with today’s work environment,” he said, “you’ve got to have some basic computer skills.”
Diaz has found that 60 percent of Bishop Sullivan Center clients don’t have the appropriate skills to complete an application online.
“I’m here to assist them with that,” he said, “anytime they need help.”
People who enter the program with little or no computer skills are immediately scheduled for computer training.
“It’s real basic — how to use the keyboard, how to put spaces between words — simple skills a lot of people take for granted,” said Diaz.
Diaz’s main focus is always to assist the client, patiently allowing them to complete the work themselves.
The most rewarding part of his job is when that patience pays off.
“After about their third or fourth [application], it starts to click,” he said, “and they say, ‘Hey, I can do this myself!’
“That gives them confidence. And that really is a big thing when you’re going out into the work force — you’ve got to have that confidence.”
Many Bishop Sullivan clients are in broken situations and have little support from family or friends — the center becomes their family.
“They don’t have anybody who offers those little supports — somebody to cheer you on, encourage you,” said Diaz. “So, we’re here to do that for them, too.”
Living the faith
Both Kennedy and Diaz find the work they do through Bishop Sullivan Center allows them to fully live their Catholic faith.
“I’m a product of 16 years of Catholic education,” said Kennedy. “And this is what I believe we’re called to do in this life — living the beatitudes and the corporal works of mercy.
“I feel guilty for getting paid to do what I’m called to do,” she said. “What a gift!”
Diaz, a member of St. James Parish in Kansas City, Missouri, understands that feeling.
In 1990, he was part of New Wine — a three-year formation program for Catholic laity that provides a basic foundation of theology and pastoral skills to prepare participants for ecclesial ministry.
“At the end of the program, they posed a challenge for us,” he said. “They told us, ‘So now [that] you know all these things about your faith, what are you going to do with it?’”
For years, Diaz answered that challenge by becoming involved with lay ministry in his church.
“I just continued my work life,” he said. “And I volunteered at a few things. I taught Sunday school and was involved with RCIA.”
But when he began working for Bishop Sullivan Center, he realized he’d found a place to truly answer the challenge of New Wine.
“I realized when you’re working with people in real-life situations, not only can you share your faith but you learn,” he said.
“I’ve learned so much from my clients in seeing how they live their faith,” he added. “And I’ve learned more about myself in dealing with real-life struggles.
“It wasn’t until this point in my life that I’ve found now I’m actually living my faith.
“And when you actually live your faith, it comes alive.”