Ellen Stuhlmann helps homeless men and women find and sustain employment as an Ignatian Volunteer at Friendship Place in Washington DC. “It’s been wonderful”, she says of the IVC service experience.
She came to IVC after retiring from a career as a publishing industry executive. She spent several years in website development, creating content to help professionals with career transitions and re-entry into the changing job market. She knew she wanted to volunteer after she retired, and approached IVC Regional Director Mike Goggin to discern where she could put her experience and talents to good use.
“I knew I didn’t want to go into an organization where I’d be writing proposals, working with a piece of paper or a computer. Engaging with people was very important to me. It became clear that my background in employment preparedness was something I could contribute,” Ellen says.
Ellen’s work at Friendship Place is in the AimHire division, which prepares people who are homeless or living on the margins for the job market through coaching, resume development, and personalized support. She leads the orientation program, carries a caseload of two to four participants, and has created a database of participants and others who are eligible – those receiving food stamps in DC – and reaches out to invite them to join the program. She is working with the program supervisor to track program outcomes as well.
“I’m the first point of contact for people coming in to learn about the program at our weekly orientation. Each participant gets assigned an employment specialist. That person accompanies and encourages the participant from the beginning of the process until he or she finds a job and through a retention period. We stick with them after they start their job and into the first 90 days. There can be all kinds of challenges of getting to work, working with peers. Many people start jobs and can’t manage it psychologically and physically. We help them with how to survive on the job,” she states.
“When I go to Friendship Place, one of the things I really try to do is to see Christ in each person I meet. When working with participants, it can be difficult at first to see what experiences they have that can go on a resume. After a few hours together we’re able to develop a document that tells their story – experience, skills and attributes. Often, they leave full of gratitude.”
“Gratitude is an avenue to God. I’m grateful to be able to help,” she says.
“I’ve kept copies of all the resumes that I’ve worked on. I keep them because I can touch them and say, ‘I wonder how these people are doing?’. I’ve been able to keep in touch with some. People come back often and check in and share with us about their work experiences,” Ellen says.
“I am working with the supervisor at AimHire to manage the database of contacts to communicate our results back to the food stamp program. It’s paperwork, but I’m starting to feel an ownership of this program. I’m excited when I can look at the results and say we’ve placed a certain percent of those we’ve served in the past 6 months,” she says.
“Working with the homeless has been a real eye-opener for me. There are many barriers and misperceptions in society that need to come down, and one is the bias against the homeless. People associate homelessness with people who don’t want to work hard. The perspective I have now is that there are so many factors and circumstances that lead to homelessness – drug addiction, mental illness, incarceration, problems with our foster care system, medical emergencies, and lost employment. The men and women who I work with are working so hard to overcome barriers to their employment. And most low-wage work is part-time so employers don’t have to pay benefits, Many people don’t have to find one job, but they have to find and hold two,” she says.
“Last week a young man came in who I’d worked with on his resume. He has a job that we helped him find in a retail store, which he really likes. He told me that in addition to the store he’s working three nights a week for four hours each at a warehouse in Rockville. He came back to AimHire for help in finding a second job that would give him more hours and not have high transportation costs. He wasn’t complaining. He wants to be able to have enough income for housing in DC. We updated his resume to add his retail experience. Then I suggested that he take his resume to other stores near where he’s working and tell employers that he needs extra hours to see if they will hire him. He was dumbfounded by that suggestion. There’s often not an awareness of how to go out and market yourself, so that’s part of what they come to us for,” she says.
Ellen values that her service experience includes reflection and community through IVC. “I’m so much more aware of Christ’s presence with me every day now. When I’m volunteering, I feel like Christ is present in the whole experience. It’s different than when I was volunteering before.”
“It’s a mindset, it’s a heart set”, she states. “It’s the IVC community. It’s being able to go on a retreat and be at peace with others who are finding God on the same path where you are finding God. It just feels good.”