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After a broken leg left Corvallis resident Eric Tate unable to work last year, he hobbled into the state office of the Department of Human Services and applied for public assistance. Out of work and without savings, he didn’t know how else he was going to get by.

“I had put myself in a pretty bad spot,” he recalled.

But what seemed at the time to be a low spot was actually a turning point for Tate. In December, he began the process of putting his life on a better path forward not only for himself, but also his 12-year-old daughter, Charlyse.

DHS referred Tate to the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills (JOBS) program at Linn-Benton Community College for people receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. It was fortunate timing. The JOBS Program was in the process of launching a new collaboration with Benton Habitat for Humanity.

As part of Tate’s individual plan to prepare to re-enter the workforce, he helped convert an outbuilding that had been used for storage by Habitat’s ReStore into The Workshop, a space where unwanted materials and items get repaired, repurposed or recycled into something new or better. Scrap wood becomes birdhouses and cutting boards. Appliances are tested. Missing or damaged pieces are replaced. Everyday items like canning jars are transformed into makeup brush holders.

Wood, glass and metal aren’t the only things being crafted at The Workshop. The lives of the people who study and work there are transitioning to self-sufficiency.

Ready to work

The Workshop aims to prepare people in the JOBS Program to fill skilled labor positions that are in demand. Before moving to Corvallis three years ago, Tate lived in Eastern Oregon, where he worked at mills and in various agriculture jobs, “grunt work” he called it. All paid low wages and were either seasonal or temporary positions.

Once the potatoes were out of the ground, Tate was out of a job.

Through the JOBS Program, he’s learned to set and achieve weekly goals. He’s developed technical skills that will make it easier for him to find a permanent job that pays a living wage. Tate discovered he’s handy with tools and equipment, and he’s gained confidence in his abilities, even leading and instructing other students at The Workshop. In July, Tate will move from job training in The Workshop to the JOBS-Plus program, where he’ll work at the Habitat ReStore.

“I want to work in this place, or a place like this,” Tate said. “I’m eager to come in.”

He’s also applying for Habitat for Humanity’s New Home Program, where families achieve stable, permanent housing by working with volunteers to build their own home.

Collaborative partners

Benton Habitat for Humanity has been a long-time partner with LBCC’s JOBS Program, providing work experience at the ReStore in Southwest Corvallis. Jessica Spencer is an instructor with JOBS who works with people to develop individual plans to prepare them to enter the workforce.

Since she was already familiar with Habitat’s operation of recycling and reusing materials, she proposed the idea for The Workshop as something that would benefit everyone involved. Spencer’s students gain experience and learn new skills by using tools, designing products and leading projects. And Habitat reduces its waste and receives additional revenue from the items created from unusable materials.

A mismatched chair was paired with a desk and both items were refinished and painted to match. A mirror was found to attach to the desk to form a vanity; that will be sold with another student’s project, decorated jars to hold make-up brushes.

The Workshop provides the space and a chance for people to begin to experience what it feels like to accomplish something, Spencer said. The students are excited and proud when they complete a project that is sold in the ReStore.

“We want them to have success from the beginning,” she said.

Daniel Sidder, community engagement manager for Benton Habitat, said because all the materials used in The Workshop are items that would otherwise be thrown away, there’s nothing to lose. The ReStore receives a lot of items that cannot be resold, especially wood products.

“From the Habitat side, we’re really all about decreasing our waste. Instead of breaking it down and putting it in the dumpster, we upcycle it,” Sidder said. “You need a little creativity to turn it into something else.”

That’s where JOBS students and The Workshop volunteers get involved.

“It’s like a Pinterest academy in there,” Sidder said.

Paths to success

In 2017, the most recent data available, 79 percent of LBCC’s JOBS Plus students were retained by their employer when the employment subsidy ended. That shows that most students who complete JOBS training are leaving the program ready to work, said Terese Jones, a faculty leader with the program.

“We would not have such a high hire rate if they were not doing such a great job,” Jones said.

Experiences like The Workshop and a similar collaboration with the city of Lebanon that salvages and repairs unclaimed bicycles for families in need, help students identify new interests and address barriers to employment.

“We remove the tripping stones that would keep them from being successful,” Jones said.

In the JOBS Program, students can work through transportation, child care and other issues before they enter the workforce.

LBCC’s JOBS Program serves people who are referred by the Department of Human Services. Besides being low-income, typical students are in their late 20s to mid-30s, most are women, and there is a mix of single-parent and co-parenting households.

“We don’t have very many people who have successfully completed a degree, and several haven’t completed high school,” Jones said.

Because the JOBS Program is connected with LBCC, students can access adult basic education and GED courses and many go on to earn a certificate or an associates degree from the community college.

Jones said The Workshop and the bicycle rehab program offer students a chance to try something different and discover something they are good at.

“For many of my students, we talk about that authentic vocation,” Jones said. “They might not know what to call it.”

Increasing participation tends to lead to success, Jones said: “Adding a workshop, having more involvement, that already means we’ll get better outcomes.”

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Rebecca Barrett, a mid-valley freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to InBusiness.

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