Overcoming Challenges, One Employment Opportunity at a Time

Written 3/12/2020, published today

While many agencies across the nation are working on initiatives to address addiction and support individuals affected by addiction, one organization is taking a unique approach. Advocates for Human Potential (AHP) is a consulting firm in Massachusetts that specializes in behavioral health in order to support vulnerable and disenfranchised populations. The organization works on a variety of healthcare issues such as substance use disorders to trauma while also focusing on the legal and policy aspects of the issues.

Rebecca Starr leads the Access to Recovery (ATR) Program at AHP which is a program funded through the federal government by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to support people in stages of early recovery from substance use and addiction. The goal of the ATR program is to ensure that participants get access to appropriate recovery support services. Starr added that in 2010, when the program first began, they were only operating in the cities of Springfield and Boston.

Now it has expanded to other cities throughout the state.

The ATR program provides participants with a variety of support including health and wellness assistance, meeting critical basic needs, recovery coaching services, employment services, and later this year they will start to offer rental house assistance. As far as overall outcomes and benefits of the program, Starr added there is a decreased use of the criminal justice system and a tremendous increase in employment. Another big success is reconnections among family members.

Since they are working with a vulnerable population Starr added that they must understand and be prepared to work with the challenges their participants face. Some face chronic trauma while some face long term illnesses. Many are at risk of relapsing. The staff members, which consists of administrative staff and coordinators, are appropriately trained and prepared to work with all participants. The ATR program collaborates with community programs and pays the tuition for participants to attend appropriate job training and employment opportunities. One such program based in Western Massachusetts nestled into the network of the services offered by Providence Ministries is FoodWorks, a 12-week culinary training program.

Shannon M. Rudder, the Executive Director of Providence Ministries, works closely with FoodWorks. Rudder mentioned that in the program they provide training on cooking, nutrition, and professional etiquette. During the training process, they also get assistance with resumes and interviews. At the end of the program, participants take the ServSafe exam and are eligible to obtain further certifications. Rudder stated that the overall goal of the program is to disrupt cycles of poverty and to provide employment opportunities to individuals who may experience barriers. The program is offered five times per year including twice in Spanish.

FoodWorks was started approximately 8 years ago by a retired public-school teacher Ralph Webb. Webb was inspired by the Catalyst Kitchens program, a national program that works within the community to move individuals out of homelessness and poverty by providing job training.

The mission of FoodWorks is to empower, educate, train and provide nutritious meals to those in need. Currently, FoodWorks has 11 enrolled ATR participants in the program, set to graduate in April. The program has successfully graduated 150 students since its inception. Approximately 82% of the graduates have secured employment.

“The food service industry is great because there are always jobs available,” Webb stated. “Many people are in recovery and still continue to keep their jobs while maintaining stability. It’s great to see how many people have climbed up the chain and are even managing programs now,” he added.

Although the training course is offered 5 times a year, there remains a greater need than what Webb can lead. In fact, one of the challenges is space. In order to expand the program, Webb needs more space to accommodate a larger number of students. Another challenge he is highly concerned about is transportation. While graduates of the program can find employment opportunities, it is difficult to sustain employment opportunities due to lack of access to public transportation. To mitigate these challenges, ATR provides new graduates with $100 Uber gift cards, which at least helps them to get started.

Tonya Miller recently graduated from the ATR program with FoodWorks in July 2019 and was hired by Providence Ministries as a chef at their community kitchen, Kate’s Kitchen. Her reason for joining the program is two-fold. She was a recovering addict and had recently lost her son. As soon as she moved into a sober home to change her lifestyle, she began her recovery process. Part of that process included joining FoodWorks.

“Within the first few weeks I started learning more about what it means to cook for a large group of people, while keeping in mind specific dietary concerns,” said Miller. “I have now learned how to cook healthy foods with natural herbs and spices, and I love it,” she added.

Miller gives credit to two amazing chefs that she currently works with, Chef Dalton and Chef Jasmine. Additionally, she mentioned that she gets her love for cooking from her teacher, Chef Webb, who constantly inspired her and fellow students.

“The FoodWorks program is part of my passion. It’s my higher power that sent me these opportunities,” said Miller. She added, “There should be more programs like these in the country that give people second chances.”







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