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Employment First has made important strides in helping food assistance recipients gain work experience, skills and referrals
Michael Whitaker, Summit County Human Services
Janet Wolfson, Summit County Employment First Coordinator
Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, Summit County Sheriff’s Office
SUMMIT COUNTY – Summit County Human Services has marked its first full year of offering the Colorado Employment First program, which helps prepare food assistance recipients for employment through job-seeking skills training, work experience and monthly job-search support activities. The program, which launched in November 2015, has provided training and support to more than 225 local adults.
“Just within its first year, Employment First has exceeded our expectations in so many ways,” Summit County Economic Security Programs Manager Michael Whitaker said. “Participants have really invested themselves and taken full advantage of the program, while local businesses and community leaders have stepped forward as enthusiastic partners. We’re seeing the development of new networks, positive relationships and increased levels of economic empowerment and independence among our food assistance recipients.”
This federally funded program places participants in meaningful work environments to gain experience, confidence, references and increased potential to compete in today’s job market. Participants are matched with work environments that align with their skills and interests. Eligible “workfare sites” must be government agencies or nonprofit organizations. Organizations currently participating include Summit County government, the Family and Intercultural Resource Center and Summit Climbing Gym.
Within the local Employment First program, Summit County Human Services has developed a variety of initiatives and services available to participants. Most recently, the program partnered with the Sheriff’s Office to help Summit County Detention Facility inmates re-enter society more successfully. Employment First offers job skills classes to inmates twice a month. Inmates also receive support in applying for food assistance and Health First Colorado insurance coverage.
“This new partnership complements our existing efforts to reduce recidivism,” Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “If you commit a crime in our community, you need to be held accountable. But we’re working together to help break the incarceration-poverty cycle by better preparing inmates to obtain meaningful employment when they leave the facility.”
Human Services and the Sheriff’s Office are planning to expand the program by identifying employers that would interview offenders in advance of their release so that they may start working right away after leaving the jail. Agape Outpost has also partnered with the Sheriff’s Office, offering a sober living house that can be used as transitional housing by male offenders who don’t have housing upon release or who don’t want to return to an unhealthy living situation.
Through Employment First’s Workfare program, participants receive valuable, real-world job experience. Human Services staff conduct strategic outreach to government agencies and nonprofits to identify work experience and activities that align with a participant’s specific skills and interests.
“This tailored approach, in combination with skills training, helps more people find work more quickly,” Employment First Coordinator Janet Wolfson said. “Participants are learning skills, gaining experience and building relationships that are personally meaningful and supportive of their long-term goals.”
One of the Summit County government departments that serves as a local Workfare site is the Summit County Community and Senior Center. The center also provides a free lunch to each program participant who attends the Employment First orientation.
“The Community and Senior Center has had several Workfare participants in our kitchen,” Center Manager Lorie Williams said. “We have loved having them in our facility. They’ve been a huge help to us in our daily operations, and they’ve learned some great job skills in the process.”
In June, Employment First hosted a small-business seminar that featured a wide array of local entrepreneurs and business experts who provided information and resources related to business development. Presenters included representatives from Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, the Summit Chamber, the Small Business Development Center, Elevate CoSpace and Stone CPA. Seminar participants gained insights into topics like marketing, accounting and networking.
The program partners with the Colorado Workforce Center in Frisco, which has been vital to Employment First’s success in its first year. Employment First participants take advantage of the center’s weekly classes, job exploration tools, job postings and individualized assistance.
In August, Summit County’s Employment First program began a mentorship pilot program, in which a participant is matched with a mentor who provides personalized, one-on-one support and coaching.
“We see these mentorships as taking assistance out the traditional government realm,” Wolfson said. “The personal relationship really empowers mentees to pursue and reach their goals.”
For more information about Summit County Food Assistance, visit www.summitcountyco.gov/foodassistance. For more information about Colorado Employment First, visit www.coemploymentfirst.org.
Community members interested in making a donation to Agape Outpost’s sober living house can contact Rick Backlund at firstname.lastname@example.org. Employers interested in interviewing inmates for job positions can contact Summit County Detentions Commander Erik Bourgerie at Erik.Bourgerie@SummitCountyCO.gov.