Church and City Partnerships Restore Dignity through Work

Grads from the Hampton Roads Work Life Network program

By Justin Lonas, reprinted from the Chalmers Center.

Part one of two. See part two here.

Shantel had come to a very difficult point in her life, living in her car with her four-year-old child. Through the Hampton (Virginia) Department of Human Services, she found a jobs preparedness class and decided to take a shot at a new start. Within a few class sessions, she had made connections with other participants and told them about her situation. Almost immediately, they took turns hosting her and her child at their homes. When the class leaders found out, they worked quickly to provide her with stable housing.

Through the connection, love, and support she experienced, Shantel completed the class. In June 2021, she started a paid training program through a local hospital to become a Certified Nursing Assistant.

Tabatha was in trouble. She’d been arrested for theft trying to support an addiction. She was referred to this same jobs preparedness class and started working through the material with a supportive community. As a result, leaders in the class went to court with her and secured a reduced sentence based on the positive efforts she was making in the class. After her time served, she told the class hosts that she had begun a new job. “Now I know how to make decisions to get my life back on track,” she said.

Local Churches Working Together

Hampton Roads, Virginia, is a metropolitan area of 1.7 million people on the Atlantic Coast, including Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Hampton, Newport News, Chesapeake, and Portsmouth.

Across this huge urban area, Shantel, Tabatha, and many others have experienced the transformative power of relationship-based training through the Hampton Roads Work Life Network. It’s a diverse, multi-denominational collective of churches and parachurch organizations from across the metro area working together to help people find and keep jobs, using the Chalmers Center’s Work Life curriculum.

New Covenant Church, Open Door Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, Kingdom Celebration Center, Memorial Baptist Church, First United Methodist Church, Emmaus Church HRVA, St. John’s Episcopal Church, and Hampton Baptist Church (as well as the “So All May Eat” program there) have been sharing in this mission together and seeing God transform lives through the gift of work. They’ve already graduated three Work Life classes this year, with a fourth getting underway this summer.

Charles Cheek, network coordinator, said this collective of churches came together specifically to start a jobs ministry to help people make long-term changes and escape material poverty. He said that the beauty of this church network is that it’s a platform, not a set program. They can add learning material based on the needs of a particular class and move quickly to provide immediate relief (like housing for Shantel) in ways that are very hard for government agencies or nonprofits to do because of red tape.

Cheek began his journey in this ministry through volunteering with an organization serving the homeless population but wanted to help people beyond their immediate needs. “There was nothing in place beyond the standard ‘go to the employment office, fill out these forms to apply for these benefits, etc.’ But with people in poverty, this became an impossible task. You’re telling them to go somewhere that they don’t have access to because they lack transportation, and then if they can get there, you’re asking them for information that they don’t have, like addresses and such,” Cheek said.

“I thought, ‘There’s got to be something better. And we need to make it better; we need to research. There’s something out there. Let’s find it.’ We knew it couldn’t be just a standard program. It has to be something that deals with the brokenness of the individual. We like Work Life because it has more flexibility in how you go through the class, and that works for the people we’re working with.”

Partnership Drives Success

Even though social services agencies can’t always do what people most need in a given situation, they aren’t competitors. Cheek sees them as key partners for the good of the community.

“Here in Hampton, we’ve developed a partnership with the City of Hampton economic development office and the social services department. We’ve brought all these entities together,” Cheek said. “We are the go-to agency doing the training for work and jobs for these groups.” The social services department had a pool of about 200 clients in one of their programs and reached out to Cheek looking for a platform that could work toward not just meeting needs but transformation. This department also sends two case workers to participate in each class alongside their clients. The economic development office provides the meeting space (in the Y.H. Thomas Community Center) and supportive services for the classes offered by the Work Life Network. “These social services workers are talking about how they’ve benefited from the classes alongside the participants. These reports are going up to leaders and the mayors, and city councils. We invite them to do a session on accessing benefits and programs within their context for each class as well,” Cheek said.

Additionally, the Work Life Network partners with other nonprofit organizations, such as Transitions Domestic Violence Services, Gordon Wellness, and THRIVE Peninsula. These, along with 15 other agencies—including state, federal, city, and faith-based nonprofits—are part of a regular “Lunch Table Talk” group (for the “Peninsula” side of the metro area) meeting for encouragement and collaboration on serving the community well.

Beyond the importance of working together to get interested participants into Work Life classes, Cheek stressed the value of partnerships for providing wraparound services for the complex issues contributing to someone’s situation.

“When we first started, we saw a lot of mental health issues among our participants, so we added Christian counseling and other support services… Just about anything you can think of that causes brokenness in someone’s life, we set up those partnerships and alliances to address those things,” he said.

“It takes the whole community effort of different services and different areas of expertise and different callings to address all the needs. Build those alliances with what’s already there in the community. It’s too taxing for one church to take on, but once you begin doing it in partnership, they get joy out of it, once they see God working in these ways.”

Employers at the Table

Connections with employers are also crucial. The Work Life curriculum directs facilitators to cultivate relationships with those who can potentially offer jobs to graduates. Cheek has worked hard to ensure that this happens throughout each class, beginning to end. “Let’s not wait until the end to get them connected to potential employers,” he said. “We don’t want to let them lose context and hope for why they’re in the class.”

Work Life Network classes have brought in staff from local community colleges to share funding opportunities for different certifications. They’ve also featured employers of past graduates to discuss how Work Life gives graduates an edge when they are ready to apply. “It helps participants so much with completion,” Cheek said. “They’re able to say, ‘I didn’t have to wait to meet potential employers, but you brought them all through the class.’ It’s not a carrot-and-stick situation. If it’s good and encouraging to begin with, people will stick with it to see what else comes through the class later.”

See part two here.

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