Turning the Unemployable into the Employable
By Amanda King
Kay Benitez has a simple dream – to take able-bodied people from dependence on government assistance to enjoying full-time work in local businesses.
Through her work as Megiddo Dream Station’s executive director, Benitez is well on her way to accomplish her dream and help others achieve their own dreams.
Megiddo Dream Station is an education program that takes people from unemployment to employment by teaching them the skills necessary to succeed at a job and in life.
The average student is 35 years old with three children and has been out of work five or more years. Education among the students ranges from GED recipients to PhD honorees.
Benitez said that 95 percent of graduates go on to obtain a job, a much higher success rate than other programs throughout the country. Many of the remaining five percent attend school to obtain more job training before entering the work force.
The dream begins
Megiddo Dream Station began after Benitez wrote an article in a local newspaper on poverty and its impact on crime. At the time, Benitez was working for Golden Harvest Food Bank and was well versed in those statistics.
The day that the article ran, Weldon Wyatt, a local businessman and visionary, contacted her and wanted to meet. He recognized a need for job and skills training among the community of Graniteville. Many of the local plants had closed in recent years, leaving many people without jobs and relying on government assistance. Wyatt wanted to fund the organization and wanted Benitez to run it.
After prayerful consideration, Benitez accepted the offer and began researching similar programs throughout the United States. What she found was not reassuring. Many of the similar programs that she read about had little success, with only 15 to 20 percent of participants able to obtain jobs after graduation.
“I realized this was going to be a challenge,” Benitez said. “But every person that comes through that door, I want them to truly believe that they are going to have a job when they get through so I’m not going to be okay with 20 percent odds.”
Something completely different
She knew that to get different results, she was going to have to do something completely different from the programs she had researched. She began talking with employers to find out what they wanted from their employees. With the information she gathered and pieces from some of the more successful programs, Benitez and other volunteers designed a 16-week curriculum to teach students how to obtain and keep a job.
“If you want to be a good employee, you’ve got to add value to that company,” Benitez said.
The first class launched in October 2012 and graduated in January 2013. After many graduates began working, Benitez and the instructors followed up with their employers to find out what employees were excelling in and what skills still needed to be learned or tweaked.
“It’s our desire to give you an employee and say, ‘That’s the best employee that’s ever walked through the door,” Benitez said.
The program eventually became an eight-week course, holding classes four times per week. Classes focus on communication skills, how to prepare a resume and cover letter, goal setting and conflict management. Students take trips to local businesses for tours and are visited by successful business owners who have also gone through hard times with jobs and life. Some speakers share their personal stories of being laid off or not completing high school only to go on to own or manage large companies.
“We bring those people in to show them that if you work hard, there’s hope, but no one here is saying this is easy,” Benitez said. “And we want them to understand that nothing they have done is bigger than God’s grace.”
One day per week, the students participate in Bible study to teach them leadership and servanthood in the workplace and to illustrate how people with troubled pasts can move on to accomplish great things.
Students also learn to set up a budget to help them manage their income after they obtain a job. With many of the students relying on government assistance for years, most have not had to budget their personal finances.
Instructors also stress the importance of filing important documents such as social security cards and birth certificates. With many of the students frequently moving, some no longer have those documents which are required for employment. Each student is given an accordion folder to secure such documents.
Megiddo operates on a point system for participation and attendance. Points are accrued if students are late, absent or fail to turn in an assignment. If they accumulate too many points, they cannot graduate.
“We want it to mean something when someone graduates from here. We want our employers to know that when they hire someone, they will be dependable,” Benitez said.
While the program is tuition-free, each participant is required to complete 20 hours of volunteer work with any non-profit, including Megiddo. Benitez said many students assist with cleaning the yard of the Megiddo station or other daily operations of the agency.
“We want them to learn that nothing should be for free, that they shouldn’t be taking handouts,” she said. “They are perfectly capable of working, perfectly capable of doing something of value and therefore they should do that.”
Megiddo has four transitional homes to help some students as they transition from government assistance to living off of their wages. Graduates also have the opportunity to take classes for more specific job training in care giving, construction, sewing and other skills.
Employers have been extremely pleased with the work ethic and drive of the more than 250 workers from Megiddo. Many want to know when each class graduates so they can hire from the program.
There are currently Megiddo Dream Stations in Graniteville, North Augusta and Aiken and the non-profit is in the process of setting up locations in Evans and New Ellenton, and in Edgefield and Richmond counties.
The agency runs on donations and various fundraisers throughout the year including the popular Diamonds and Denim silent auction. With so many students assisting Megiddo with volunteer hours, costs are very low for a non-profit with such an incredible impact. There is also a capital campaign to help launch more training classes.
For more information on Megiddo, visit mdssc.org.