“Two-Generation/Whole Family” approach to career readiness helps local families escape poverty “Two-Generation/Whole Family” approach to career readiness helps local families escape poverty

Initiative funded in part by Working Cities Challenge helps parents find career opportunities Initiative funded in part by Working Cities Challenge helps parents find career opportunities

April 23, 2021

Mariangeliz Fines has always connected with children with special needs, but she never guessed she’d end up working with them. Her outlook changed when she committed to a career readiness program by a Springfield, Mass., collaborative that formed as part of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston's Working Cities Challenge.

After struggling for years working part-time jobs to make ends meet, Fines is now working with autistic students in the Springfield public school system as a paraprofessional – an unlicensed educational staffer who performs specific duties in the classroom. Fines found her career path after participating in the Two-Generation/Whole Family Approach to Careers workforce readiness program, an initiative of Springfield WORKS.

The Two-Generation program is a “wrap-around approach” to work readiness, said Lori Ann Chaves, director of family and clinical services at Head Start in Springfield. The model is inspired by The Aspen Institute and aims to approach the well-being of families by supporting children and parents simultaneously, offering services for early childhood development, and opportunities for parents in job training, nutrition programs, financial literacy, and more.

This seven-week program builds social capital and peer support, while tackling various topics from "cliff effects" to parenting, debt management, and professional skills. It's all part of an effort to help parents find careers, manage their finances, and provide the tools to help them get out of poverty. Program participants receive credentials from local colleges and get help, including daycare and transportation, to handle difficulties that threaten to derail their progress.

Since completing the program, Fines has been working one-on-one with an autistic child. Fines enjoys her work, and the stability it provides frees her up to think about the future instead of worrying about life’s daily challenges.

“There’s a lot of opportunities out there, you know,” Fines said.

Springfield WORKS was founded four years ago when the Boston Fed awarded the initiative a $475,000 Working Cities three-year implementation grant.

The Working Cities Challenge is a grant competition designed to promote “collaborative leadership in smaller, postindustrial cities to transform the lives of their low-income residents.”

Now in its fourth year, Springfield WORKS continues to receive funding through Working Cities, the City of Springfield, the Aspen Institute, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s Urban Agenda Grant.

Springfield WORKS is a collaboration that aims to promote economic opportunity for all and includes more than 30 local organizations – including Head Start, BayState Health, Dress for Success Western MA, Holyoke and Springfield Technical Community Colleges, and Springfield Partners for Community Action. The collaborative focuses on residents in Hampden County, where the $13.50 minimum wage is less than half of the living wage of $32.09, according to data on the Springfield WORKS site. Additionally, the annual income of the growing number of Hispanic/Latino households lags other races.

So far, the Two-Generation program has had about five cohorts of 12–16 parents, and 88% of the pre-COVID graduates are working, said Anne Kandilis, the director of Springfield WORKS/Working Cities Challenge. One of those graduates is Keisha Torres.

Torres, 27, is a single mother who had been out of the workforce for a while caring for her autistic daughter, who was nonverbal and needed ongoing therapy. Now, Torres works in emergency room finance administration at Baystate Medical Center. During the program, Torres took parenting classes, made new friends, and learned how to build a resume and dress for an interview, she said. But she said one of the most important things she gained from the experience was confidence.

“I feel like anything we put our mind to, we could have accomplished,” Torres said.

Torres and Fines both speak fondly of the Dress for Success portion of the program. Dress for Success empowers women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire, and development tools. Torres said every woman left with two outfits and two pairs of shoes.

“After they fit us, we were ready to conquer the world,” Torres said.

After the fitting, Fines said there was an intense mock interview training to help the women practice.

But Fines and Torres have been through workforce readiness programs aimed at low-income earners before. The difference with this program, Torres said, is that after you graduate and get a job, staff from the initiative still check in. Sometimes, they do more that.

When Torres didn’t have a car, one of the instructors, Shawntsi Baret, gave her rides to appointments.

“They’re amazing people who don’t just care about the funding,” she said. “They care about you as a person."

Kandilis said that shift from program outcomes to family outcomes is very intentional.

“For the first time, we shift the complexity of navigating government systems from the families to the partners and collaborators," she said. "We're putting families first."

As they continue to do this work, Chaves said Springfield WORKS is hoping to cast a wider net to include fathers and possibly grandparents. She’s also eager to better measure the program's success to show its impact.

But for moms like Fines and Torres, its impact couldn’t be more apparent.

“I have a career, bought my first car, my daughter is verbal, healthy, and happy. ... Life is a lot better,” Torres said. "And to think all it took was committing to the program."

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