Nonprofit to fight poverty by helping poor get, keep jobs

Mark Mason of Mount Pleasant is unemployed, but East Cooper Community Outreach has helped him find part-time work and a bike to help him reach his bus stop 2.5 miles from his home.

Paul Zoeller

In November, as South Carolina’s unemployment rate remained stubbornly high, Mark Mason decided to leave Columbia with his wife, Cora, and move to Charleston.

He had a month’s unemployment left and figured Charleston’s booming economy offered him better odds to land a good job, something he had been unable to do in the two years since the mechanic and machine operator was laid off by a Columbia communications company.

Charleston proved no better than Columbia for Mason to find a job making anywhere near what he had previously brought home, $1,508 every two weeks. When his unemployment benefits ran out, Mason lowered his sights but still couldn’t find anything but minimum wage, part-time work and odd jobs.

Mason said he applied at numerous North Charleston businesses where he thought his skills might be in demand.

“They say they would call back, but they never did,” he said. “It’s like I’m going 100 miles per hour on a treadmill, but every week I’m in the same spot. It’s rough. I’ve got bills. It feels real bad. People look at me like I’m a deadbeat.”

It got worse in January when he lost his main means of applying for jobs. The oil pump went out on his car, and he didn’t have the money to fix it. Desperate, he walked several miles from where he and his wife live in Mount Pleasant to a church he had seen on U.S. Highway 17. He hoped the church might have a job for him.

Instead the church sent him to East Cooper Community Outreach, an ecumenical organization set up after Hurricane Hugo to help the Mount Pleasant area’s poor.

Soon, Mason would become an experiment. The outreach was trying out a new way to help the poor and the chronically jobless — not just to help them get a job, but help them keep it long enough to begin earning a living wage and become self-sufficient.

On Wednesday, Jack Little, East Cooper’s executive director, said the experiment with Mason convinced the outreach of the need. The nonprofit now plans to launch the program sometime this summer to help lift more of the poor in greater Mount Pleasant, he said.

The need is great, despite the area’s below-the-national-average unemployment rate, Little said. Some 15 percent of Mount Pleasant’s nearly 70,000 people live in poverty, and that jumps to 40 percent for residents of rural East Cooper, he said.

The outreach’s program will be called “One Job for One Year,” and it will focus on just that — helping clients find and keep a job by providing the assistance and support they need to overcome the many barriers that get in the way of those in poverty, such as inadequate transportation and lack of child care. It will start small and expand as capability grows, Little said.

The program is believed to be the first comprehensive effort in the Lowcountry to help the poor keep jobs. Several governmental, private and nonprofit organizations in the area already help the jobless and poverty-stricken prepare for and find jobs. And some, such as Crisis Ministries, offer services or referrals to help them keep jobs, but none to the extent that East Cooper plans.

Many social service agencies say such programs are desperately needed across South Carolina, especially in the rural areas where poverty and unemployment run at rates markedly higher than the state average.

Jamie Wood is workforce development director for SC Works Trident, the state’s unemployment office for Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties. He welcomes the new program. His office helps several thousand find jobs each month but does not have funds or authorization to help them stay employed.

“It would help us a lot,” Wood said of East Cooper’s program. As it is, he said, SC Works puts its resources toward helping people overcome job barriers before they get hired. When that doesn’t work, Wood finds out “when they come back in search of a new job.”

Wood said it’s not always easy to help the unemployed get the education or training they may need in today’s workplace, especially if that person has no real income from unemployment or another source. For people who are worried about what they will eat, where they will sleep and who will watch the children, it’s very difficult, he said.

East Cooper Outreach’s effort is partially modeled on a successful program called Cincinnati Works, a nonprofit that boasts of keeping more than 80 percent of its workers on the job. That’s considered a remarkable rate for the type of people Cincinnati Works focuses on.

The organization believes the chronically unemployed form an untapped resource to fill the economy’s need for unskilled labor, which it says accounts for up to 15 percent of all jobs.

Cincinnati Works recruits the chronically unemployed, helps improve their job skills and places them with companies in need of unskilled workers. Businesses like the nonprofit because it guarantees it will cut the companies’ costly unskilled job turnover in half.

David Phillips, founder of Cincinnati Works, explained during a recent presentation in Charleston that it keeps clients working by surrounding them with assistance programs and by working directly with the places they work to make sure they do their jobs.

Little said the work with Mason helped him see firsthand what the poor have to deal with. “I have learned more about the complicated and insurmountable barriers that people in poverty face every day and the determination that could help someone overcome them.”

The outreach already has three years of experience through its Getting Ahead program. It helps women break through barriers by building self-confidence, setting goals for the future and determining ways to get there. About 40 women a year go through the program.

Little felt that if the nonprofit wanted “to make a larger impact eliminating generational and situational poverty in East Cooper, we needed to create an approach that would affect a larger portion of the people we serve.”

Kathryn Harrison, director of Safety Net Service for the nonprofit, works directly with Mason and said the idea is to provide “wrap-around services” to help him to self-sufficiency.

Getting there is no cake walk. While Harrison tries to help Mason find a full-time job, he continues to do temporary work at Detyens Shipyard in North Charleston. He said he has no assurance of a job any given day but to find out he must show up ready for work. That means he might spend three hours a day riding his bike and the bus just to find out there’s no work.

“Everything is harder for the poor,” Little said.

For now, Mason said, he’s working fairly regularly running a big machine at Detyens.

The barriers Mason faces are typical of the longtime unemployed: no car, no money for proper work clothes and an avalanche of unpaid bills.

Harrison said East Cooper Outreach helped him over each barrier, providing assistance with bills, résumé writing, interview training, clothing, work boots, a bicycle, bus passes and, most importantly, support and encouragement.

Alone Mason could have given up at any one of those barriers, but he kept at it.

Little describes Mason as rare among the poor and chronically unemployed: He retains a spirit and a willingness to try anything to get a good job again.

In some ways Mason’s motivation makes him relatively easy to help, and that leads Little to believe the job East Cooper Outreach is taking on will be daunting.

Despite his upbeat attitude and willingness to do what it takes, Mason confesses he has taken an emotional beating. He dreams of his past — his full-time job in Columbia making antennas for the military, the good pay and the security. “When I got home from work, you know what I’d do? I’d barbecue.”

A fond smile at that memory fades from his face.

“I don’t mind if I have to do it all over again, but I don’t know if the opportunity is there.”

At 43, he’s worried the American dream for a blue-collar worker like him may be over.

“I wish to God I would find a permanent job. I doubt it, though. I don’t think life will get that comfortable again.”