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Church joins with community in ‘welfare-to-work’ initiatives

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (BP)–The dozen women, donned in white gowns and mortar boards, walked into the sanctuary of the Church at Rock Creek — and into a new life — as they “graduated” from an innovative new ministry designed to move Arkansans from welfare rolls to payrolls.
The women, all of whom have been receiving Transitional Employment Assistance (TEA) funds from the state, participated in a six-week “Life Skills Workshop” developed and implemented by the Little Rock church’s ministry arm, Rock Creek Care Center.
The workshop, held for six Fridays, taught participants fundamentals in lifestyle management, from values to interviews in an unusual hand-in-hand effort to combine ministry with governmental reform. Following the Dec. 11 ceremony, each graduate met with prospective employers at a job fair held at the church as part of the process.
Lisa Davis, 30, said that since attending the classes “they have taught us budgeting, values, forgiveness and how to be a positive role model for my children also.”
“What I get out of this is … hope,” Davis said. “Before I started taking this class, I had jobs here, jobs there, just being lazy. I didn’t want to go to a job or keep a job for a month. I had a job at Children’s Hospital and kept it for about two weeks and quit it. I became totally dependent on the TEA check.”
Her comments showed that many of the women have more to deal with than seeking a job. She noted Rock Creek pastor Mark Evans “taught us about accepting God into our life and this is where God taught me about forgiveness, because in November last year I got shot. They tried to teach me to deal with the guy that shot me, to forgive him.
“I have been feeling more positive about myself and my outlook on what I want to do, and I didn’t have that outlook at the beginning,” she commented, adding she wants to finish her high school education and move into the field of abused and neglected women and children.
Like fellow participant Lisa Davis, Anita Williams, 35, found herself “just sitting at home every day doing nothing but watching TV,” prior to attending the classes. “Now, hopefully, I’m going to find a good job, finish school, get a GED and continue training in computers.”
Also like other participants, Williams attended a variety of classes that included career-boosting information about filling out a job application, personal conduct and dress during an interview. “We had a lot of people coming out and telling us about their careers and a couple of ladies from the DHS (Department of Human Services) come … teach us about budgeting. We had a lot of interesting things going on about clothing and, you know, life.”
Rock Creek member Shirley Shackleford serves as workshop administrator, “making sure we contact presenters, do scheduling and programming, making sure the ladies understand what their requirements are,” she explained. “Our focus is on setting goals, positive thinking, budgeting. We will coordinate through the Department of Human Services for personal needs, such as GEDs. I also fill out progress reports on attitude, participation.”
Shackleford, who also is on the staff of Here’s Life Inner City, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, said she has served as the workshop’s administrator for more personal reasons.
“I was, at one point, a welfare recipient,” she said. “I was a single mom for 11 years and I raised three children and there was a point in my life where I needed to rely on the state to help me. There were no programs like this at the time. I have a burden and a heart for this.”
While the workshop reflects a desire by federal and state government to help move people from welfare to work, Evans said the church sees it as a ministry meeting needs. “The Care Center is the beginning umbrella of how we minister to people by meeting their needs and, ultimately, leading them into a relationship with Christ,” he said.
Of the 12 who completed the workshop process, eight have made personal decisions for Christ.
Evans worked with Shackleford and church members to develop the content, he said, “to give the real-life, hands-on, ‘Here’s how you can take principles and apply them to your life.’ These are things like job interview skills, how to prep a resume, learn some things about yourself and to make proper decisions. We also want to show them what the Bible says about how Jesus teaches how to take the time you’ve been given and make the most of it.”
He said the church will continue in the welfare-to-work process, assigning mentors to counsel graduates for a 12-month period and holding its next Life Skills Workshop — with a new group of participants — in February.
If the workshop appears to be an extreme departure both in how churches minister and in how government moves welfare recipients to work, it is. Hope Center in Little Rock, held at a First Church of God facility, piloted the project and has seen about 80 graduate from the program. Rock Creek used the Hope Center as a model for their workshop.
Evans said church member Joan Adcock, also a Little Rock city director, planted the idea for a welfare-to-work ministry after her work with the Hope Center. “About the same time, government started talking about welfare to work,” Adcock recounted. “We started praying over that and started understanding that God was calling churches to come forward in welfare-to-work.”
Adcock noted the Little Rock board of directors recently approved six community centers for welfare-to-work initiatives, as recommended by the board’s site base committee. “Every one of those came in with a faith-based component,” she said. “I expected more of a government element.”
As foreign as it seems, will Arkansans see more churches working in partnership with government to accomplish welfare reform?
“I believe so,” remarked Larry Toller, one of Gov. Mike Huckabee’s liaisons to DHS. “It stands to reason that the church has numerous resources available to it. It can be an extended family. It has a vast number of volunteers who are not only willing but able to help folks.”
Gov. Mike Huckabee, who spoke to graduates, said following the ceremony, “I’ve always believed very strongly that the absolute key to welfare reform is faith-based ministries to people. Government can give a sterile check, a class, but it takes a human being to wrap their arms around a person and say, ‘I love you and you matter, not because this is a job to me, but you are a person like me.’ That’s the difference.”
Helen Webb, DHS economic services supervisor, agreed, explaining “the most important thing is that the churches are giving of their time and efforts and hearts. We at DHS are involved with paper. The churches are able to provide these ladies the Life Skills Workshop where they can learn life skills to go out and get a job so they can got out and help their children.”
“We’re in a new paradigm,” Toller noted. “There has been a paradigm shift in welfare reform. Whereas in the past, welfare was an entitlement, now we’re calling it Transitional Employment Assistance. This is time-limited.
“Presently, state law requires a two-year time period for a person who is able-bodied to move from dependency to self-sufficiency,” he said. “That’s a big jump, considering that we’ve had decades of the mind-set that this is an entitlement. Now we have a new approach. Federal law requires no more than five years and state law (enacted in 1997) is two.”
Toller noted because federal and state law “both encourage churches’ involvement in the welfare-reform movement, we’re looking for ways to make that happen. The plan for Arkansas is each county has what’s called a TEA coalition made up of private citizens, business leaders, elected officials, community leadership and pastors. They’ll try to fill in the holes and take down the roadblocks.”
For Brenda Rudley, 21, the roadblocks to help were rooted in personal self-esteem. “I wasn’t working, I was just at home laying around watching stories every day. I had low self-esteem and attitudes toward other people. Before I started coming here, I would let people put me down just because I’m not working. Coming to this program, having someone telling me I can do something makes me a better person.
“I know that just by going through this program I’ll better myself and my kids,” said Rudley, the mother of three. “Before I leave here today, I want to get a job not just for the money but because I like to work. I’m ready to go out there and make some money and further myself.”
Huckabee recognized the many personal battles fought by welfare recipients like Rudley wanting to make a change in their lives as he spoke to the women during the graduation ceremony.
“Remember not what the people around you say when they tell you what you can’t do,” he urged, “but what God says you can do. If you’ll plug into him, you’ll realize that the greatest strength you’ll ever have in your day is the strength that he supplies. The best way to get self-esteem is not for somebody to give it to you, but to let God get into you when you answer his call.”
Evans urged other churches to “pick up” on the welfare-to-work ministry. “It should be the future of welfare reform. It’s not only something that the government needs, it’s something that the church needs to do.
“As a pastor, I need to lead my church to do this kind of ministry because this is what Jesus told me to do,” he said. “I want us to look at our future relationship and how we continue to develop our ministry plan in partnership with people like the Department of Human Services.
“It’s incredible what kind of changes can take place,” he remarked. “The government has thrown money at the problem. They stepped up to the plate when the church backed away and got out of the ballpark. It’s time for the church to get into the ballpark, step up to the plate and work in partnership with DHS. They can’t do everything else the church can do.”

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  • Russell N. Dilday