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Tools for the Job

Tools for Life English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

People who attend the Tools for Life program at the Salvation Army’s Portland, Maine Corps are welcome to share both their talents and life experiences. Doing so may open the door for new social connections or newfound interests among peers.

“Everyone brings in what makes them unique, and that is what makes the program unique,” says Mary Irace, Tools for Life director. “Many of our members come from other countries, and they bring their culture and family traditions with them. If they don’t have any traditions, they have a longing to make some for their families. They want to give their children what they themselves did not have.”

The social aspect to enjoy life is only part of Tools for Life. There are also “tools” and resources to help people learn English, polish up their resumes, find immigration lawyers who are fluent in their language, and discover books that will  help parents teach their children to read.

“We have opportunities to network, start new careers, find hobbies or hear from people who have started their own businesses after being part of our program,” says Irace. “There’s a lot of networking done here at Tools for Life.”


‘Bag Libraries’ donated to Tools For Life during the pandemic.

Career–minded ministry

Irace keeps a binder in her office that is full of resumes from Tools for Life members who she has helped find work.

“I learn a lot about them from these resumes. They were nurses, teachers, miners, and oil men back in their country. The only thing keeping them from jobs like those here is the language barrier,” says Irace.

For example, two men who came to Tools for Life without high school degrees had years of experience as welders in their country of Angola. In the seven months they had been in the United States, they worked tirelessly to improve their English skills to be adequate for a job interview. But they had applied for jobs unsuccessfully until Irace helped them with their resume and vouched for them to potential employers.

When they finally were granted interviews, the Tools for Life program also helped the men acquire steel–toed boots, which were required to take the mandatory hands–on welding test. They both aced the exam and began 12–hour shifts as welders. At their new jobs, they became leaders, and passed their experience on to other young welders.

“They were kind to others, because kindness was shown to them,” says Irace.


Ever-changing needs

As ESL classes and social groups slowly return to normal numbers after COVID-19, Irace knows what she would like to see Tools for Life do in the future.

“I want to have counselors here that can meet with our members and really get in depth to know their goals, dreams, and plans and connect them with others who can help achieve that. Like a mentor program for life,” she says.

“You can’t make assumptions on God’s plans for people,” says Irace, “Sometimes, their most basic need changes as they walk through the door of our corps and see what we can offer at Tools for Life.”

Long-term planning will one day be a reality at Tools for Life, but for now, Irace says that they are hard at work being in the moment for the individual needs of their participants, whether they be supplies for their first day of work or making sure life-changing documents get to where they need to arrive as soon as possible.


When miracles open up

Nine years ago, most of the people attending the Tools for Life program were of European heritage. Today, most come from the Middle East and Africa. Some seek more than language and job skills; they also need refuge from adversity.

Irace remembers working with an asylum seeker from Africa who had come to the United States and was about to give birth. Her husband had been taken by the authorities, and their children were being watched by the pastor’s wife. The work Tools for Life was doing for this family came to a halt when important documents had to be sent to her country.

“The government had shut down all internet access for their election. Even the U.S. Embassy had closed,” says Irace. The simple task of e-mailing documents had suddenly become impossible. Fortunately, Tools for Life found someone in Illinois who was scheduled to fly to the asylum seeker’s country the next day. The paperwork was sent overnight to Chicago, and in only a few days, they arrived to their destination in Africa.

“We think of some of the work we accomplish as impossible, but if God wants something to happen, chances will open up. I’ve seen so many miracles and lives turned around,” says Irace.

by Hugo Bravo

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