Magazine Features

The American Dream
Pottstown Works, pulling people out of poverty.

Last winter, Damaris Martinez of Pottstown, Pa., slept in a car. It was parked in the driveway of a relative who had given her 8–year–old son a bed in the house. Martinez, a 45–year–old single mom, had lost her job and apartment.

Although she was trying to get back on her feet, a health crisis arose. The few dollars she earned as a hotel maid was barely enough to feed her and her son. 

Eventually, they landed in the Salvation Army’s Lessig–Booth Shelter for Homeless Families. Martinez was also carless and jobless.

Charles Purvis, 34 and single, lived with family in Philadelphia. As a contract salesman, he sold electricity packages to households. Purvis had worked in stadium security, commercial janitorial services, and as a shoe salesman at Nordstrom’s, a high–end department store.

Purvis didn’t have a car or a driver’s license. He didn’t need either in a city where he could ride buses and subways.

A woman Purvis dated became pregnant with twins. He moved to Pottstown where she lived so that he could be an involved father. But he found himself lacking a job, and for the first time in his life, needing transportation to find a job. Soon, Charles and his new family, including now three–month–old twins, were living in the homeless shelter.

The need for work

Shelter administrators referred both Damaris and Charles to Pottstown Works, the Salvation Army’s job–readiness program.

Based on the internationally acclaimed Cincinnati Works poverty–to–work program, Pottstown Works was established in March 2017 as a startup project and funded in part by a Thomas Lyle Williams (TLW) grant of The Salvation Army Eastern Territory. The program began with three local professional women working as volunteers at the shelter to teach resume writing to residents.

Thanks to the TLW grant, the Army hired a program director, launched job–readiness workshops, and followed up with job coaching activities. These moves helped put people and their families on paths to self–sufficiency. 

In the first year, Pottstown Works graduated 28 people from workshops and referred them to 12 area businesses for employment. These efforts essentially prevented homelessness for 33 people, including 17 children.

Fulfilling the mission

When Major Jeny Shurtleff, the corps officer in Pottstown, thinks about the Pottstown Works program, the words of Army founders William and Catherine Booth come to mind.

The first is “Others,” by William Booth and the second is, “If we are to better the future, we must disturb the present,” by Catherine Booth.

“Both of these quotes represent what Pottstown Works encompasses,” Shurtleff said. “The program is doing its best to disrupt the present condition of the students that come through the program and create better futures for them.”

Participants must be drug–free, have little or no criminal background, and be willing and able to work full–time. The program is free and limited to people living below the federal poverty guidelines, whether a single person or a family of five. 

People who apply are interviewed and, once accepted into the program, attend a one–week, (Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.), workshop designed to teach the skills needed to get and keep a job.

Applicants outside the acceptance criteria are referred to other agencies. These include: a health clinic, mental health or substance abuse counseling, legal aid, and county unemployment services for people above the poverty line.

Removing roadblocks

Addressing barriers to employment such as the lack of transportation, child care, and training is what makes the mission of Pottstown Works different from other non–profit job services. The aim is to address those barriers on a case–by–case basis. That can mean getting a bike donated for a member, mapping a bikeable or walkable route to a job or guiding a member through the paperwork needed to get subsidized child care.

It may also mean matching an inexperienced worker to an unappealing job for a year to show work experience, then helping that individual pursue training in something that matches his or her interests and goals.

Brian Bowers is a 19–year–old senior soldier in the Pottstown Corps. He plays in the band’s trombone section and has served as a volunteer.

His only previous work experience was a short stint as a camp counselor. Brian came to Pottstown Works shortly after getting his high school equivalency diploma from the local YWCA.  After graduating from Pottstown’s weeklong workshop, he started full–time work at a warehouse notorious for having a difficult environment with zero tolerance for lateness or absences. 

“The warehouse was a bit of a culture shock for me,” Brian recalls. “I had never been around the kind of talk and smoking and habits that went on there.”

Back on his feet

But it was a job, and Brian was determined to stick with it. He concentrated on the work, made a few friends, and survived. Now, just six months later, Brian boasts of a perfect attendance record at the warehouse. He has money in the bank and is saving a portion of it to pay the tuition at a technical school. His ambition is to become an electrician.

“Pottstown Works helped give me the confidence to set these goals for myself,” Brian said. “I believe God worked through The Salvation Army to lead me to this program—and it has helped me to change my life.”

“We are proud of Brian,” added Major Shurtleff. “Since we met him when we came to the Pottstown Corps last year, we have seen him grow so much. We are proud of his effort to earn his equivalency diploma, hold down a full–time job, obtain his driver’s license, and apply for college. 

“We are sad to see him go off to college, but we know that the Lord has wonderful things in store for him.”

Path from poverty

Although Pottstown Works has a broader function than to exclusively serve residents of The Salvation Army homeless shelter, people typically find their way from the shelter, the food pantry or the community meals to Pottstown Works.

“Every person who walks through the doors of The Salvation Army in Pottstown is greeted with respect, no matter what their life situation is,” said Major Shurtleff.

“We may be helping them with one need, but after chatting for a few minutes and getting a little more of their background story, we recognize that we can help them in another area of their life. We show and tell them about the love of Jesus and take every opportunity to invite them to church and to our programs.”

As a replication program of the Cincinnati Works model, Pottstown Works volunteers also stay with members after they get a job. Volunteers make follow–up calls to the members and to their employers. The aim is to ensure that members stay on the job and advance.

Teachable moments

“If a member is 5–minutes late one day and then 10–minutes late a week later, we want to know about it,” said Nancy March, program director. “If it’s a child care problem, we’ll work on it with the member. If her car broke down or his bike was stolen, we’ll brainstorm solutions and help members figure out how to fix the problem and get to work on time.

“Employers respect us because we give them vetted employees who we’ve tried to prepare for the realities of the workplace, whether at a sweltering factory in the heat of summer or on an assembly line of talkative busybodies.  Employers know that not every hire is going to work out, but they trust that we will do our best to create a good match and then provide the support to make it last.”

The goals at Pottstown Works, as adapted from the  Cincinnati Works, are (1) one year/one job advancement and (2) self–sufficiency in five years. In order to make that path attainable, Pottstown Works searches for jobs that pay no less than $11 an hour and no fewer than 25 scheduled hours a week.

The program relies on hundreds of volunteer hours spent by the founders: a psychologist, a financial expert, and a business networks manager. Other volunteers include a banker, a pastor, a communications specialist, and an operations manager who do everything from mapping bus routes to acquiring work interview clothing to compiling newsletters.

The program also relies on partnerships with other community non–profits, including churches and social service agencies. 

Pottstown Works, as well as The Lessig–Booth Shelter, are part of a coalition in Pottstown that works to understand and address Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) in children and to boost efforts to be a trauma–informed community.

Resilient spirit

Damaris now works in a grocery store deli and has gained a reputation among customers for her bright smile and helpfulness. She adds value to her employer because she can answer a customer service complaint in Spanish as well as in English. She greets elderly customers with the same enthusiasm as she does children.

Damaris works hard, comes in on an hour’s notice to cover a shift for someone who called in sick, and welcomes extra hours, even if they are on the Fourth of July or on Super Bowl Sunday.

Her efforts all paid off when she was recently named the store’s “Employee of the Month.”

Damaris and her son live in an apartment building with a neighbor who can keep an eye on him for an hour or so if she has to work late.

People around her comment on the positive outlook she has had since joining Pottstown Works. She credits the program with giving her a future.

“This program gave me the energy and enthusiasm to get back out there and to know that I can make it,” Damaris said. “I am blessed to be alive, and I have the most positive outlook on life that I have ever had. I am just thankful that I was led here.”

Charles got a full–time job in factory assembly at a local company. It’s a new area of work for him at the only U.S. firm making steel products in its line.

But the path to prosperity has had its roadblocks. He was laid off after eight months due to a slowdown in plant orders, and he had to take a series of temp jobs to make ends meet.

He and his girlfriend live with her three–year–old child and their now one–year–old twins in an apartment. He has walked as much as two miles or taken buses daily for as long as 45 minutes one way to get to jobs.

Hired full–time at another assembly plant, he was there just two weeks when his boss told him the job had become obsolete.

A day later, God’s grace prevailed, and he was called back to the first plant that had laid him off. “Trust the process,” Charles says.

Whether that process is through prayer or the diligence of Pottstown Works staff and volunteers, they strive to bring people out of poverty by teaching and helping promote the dignity of work.

As a result, they are changing lives and families—one person at a time.

by Nancy March

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