Originally created 02/19/01

Program puts Augustans to work



To Joetta Johnson, lives changed by a knock on the door were found only in sweepstakes ploys or scenes on sitcoms - until last summer.

That was when Christa Raines, a personal counselor for the Augusta Goodworks program, delivered news that altered the course of the 44-year-old welfare mother's life.

"I was stressed out by the environment that I was in," said Ms. Johnson, who lived unemployed at River Glen Apartments for 14 years."I just wanted a change, but it seemed like it would take forever."

Fourteen years of welfare dependency tapered off when Ms. Johnson enrolled as one of 129 participants in Goodworks, a job-training and placement program first tested in Augusta in March. Currently, 61 of the participants, including Ms. Johnson, work at local businesses.

The local program's success during the past year prompted Gov. Roy Barnes to approve an $18.6 million budget in August, expanding Goodworks into a statewide project.

At the beginning of the year, Richmond County facilities received $1.5 million to train an additional 195 participants at its locations on Wylds and Peach Orchard roads. McDuffie, Columbia, Jefferson and Washington counties combined to form an East Central Georgia consortium that will serve 180 adults with a $1.3 million budget. Burke County reported a need to serve 30 people and received $205,000.

Goodworks was designed to help those the Department of Family and Children Services deemed the most difficult among its welfare clients to employ. In some cases, participants battled drug addictions, were involved in unresolved domestic violence or had relied on a monthly welfare stipend for more than 10 years. From the start, participants had one thing in common: The cutoff date for their monthly stipend was nearing an end, and they had no Plan B.

"It was an effort to engage 120 people who had fallen through the cracks, those who for whatever reason we weren't able to get them to come into the office," said Linda Johnson, Goodworks state coordinator. When the welfare initiative started in 1997, Ms. Johnson served as DFCS director in Augusta. At the end of last year, she was promoted to her current post. "We weren't successful in some of our traditional modes of outreach and strategy. We sought to redesign the approach."

The Goodworks office on Wylds Road is adjacent to the Goodwill Industries processing warehouse and Good Cents store. There, bins of donated clothes and boxes of electronics, furniture and appliances are sorted, tagged and sold. Goodworks participants do much of the work.

"The big thing here is work ethic," said Minh Hua, a local coordinator. "The Good Cents store is run by the alumni."

The Business Advisory Council, composed of local employers including Medical College of Georgia, Publix and E-Z-Go representatives, helped design a training program to address the problems that often get new employees fired, such as poor attendance, inappropriate dress and inability to resolve conflicts with co-workers, Mr. Hua said.

"We want them to run into conflict, so that they can learn how to deal with it here instead of taking it out there and they'll get fired," he said. Counselors help deal with day care, transportation and other issues that could threaten employment, he added.

The Wylds Road office houses a computer lab and classrooms where Goodworks employees take computer, customer service and data-entry courses during the workday.

Linda Kay McClendon, 43, is in her second week of the program. Rummaging through a pile of clothes, she smiles shyly.

First concerned that she will be at a loss for words, she finds they come to her easily once she begins sharing her plans for life beyond Goodworks.

"I want to do more than I am able to do right now," she said. "I love talking to people. I'm good at typing. I have a little computer skills.

"Before God calls me in, there are things that I want."

She said she wants to buy a house, where she and her four daughters and four grandchildren can spend time together. She would retire there once she completes a career as a court stenographer, she said.

Ms. McClendon reached her 48-month lifetime welfare limit Dec. 12.

An illness, chronic pancreatitis, forced her off her feet and further away from achieving personal goals. Because of her illness, Ms. McClendon qualified for a hardship waiver, which continues benefits for clients three months beyond the welfare deadline.

"God is blessing me,"she said. "I'm not sick the way I used to be. And I can stand and do things for myself. I just feel good about myself."

Coordinators said that, to a greater degree than earlier welfare reform programs, Goodworks requires more of the partner agencies, such as Goodwill Industries, in that counselors, coaches and teachers are personally responsible for one client for two years - including 30 days to six months of job training and, ultimately, employment.

Now, Ms. Johnson works at Sitel Inc. in south Richmond County as a technician, troubleshooting for America Online users. In the five months she's been on the job, she's gotten a promotion and moved into a house on Telfair Street.

"I knew I had to do it," Ms. Johnson said. "I just felt that I can do it and it's coming. Now, it's here."

Reach Clarissa J. Walker at (706) 828-3851.