In September 2018, Sarah Winblad’s life was shattered. She had worked for multiple tech companies during her 19-year career, and her experience included customer service, HTML coding, and search engine optimization But when she lost her job managing an online help center for a Chicago e-commerce company, Sarah couldn’t find another position. That led to “huge, huge problems financially,” she says. Then she lost her home. When her unemployment benefits ran out, she applied with the state of Illinois for food stamps and a medical card.
“My life was very close to spinning out of control,” she says.
Illinois requires assistance recipients to join a job readiness program, and an Illinois Department of Human Services representative suggested that Sarah contact Cara, a Stand Together nonprofit partner that helps those experiencing poverty obtain, retain, and advance in quality jobs. Sarah joined in July 2019 and two months later completed a four-week class on core workplace and leadership training skills. In October 2019 – through Cara’s revenue-generating, mission-driven staffing firm, Cara Connects – she began doing work for DirecTech, a Cara partner company that streams ad-supported onscreen news content for local businesses such as restaurants, gyms, and spas.
“It has meant everything to me to have this work,” she says. “Not only do I have income, but I have a boost in confidence.”
Sarah is one of Cara’s many success stories. Founded by Chicago entrepreneur and philanthropist Tom Owens in 1991, Cara offers training, personal coaching, and opportunities to people affected by poverty. The goal: to help its participants find and keep quality jobs and to provide businesses with quality workers who will stay and advance in their companies. Cara’s training programs range from helping clients gain computer skills to mastering the art of interviewing, and over the past 29 years, Cara has filled more than 10,500 positions and helped employ nearly 7,000 people. The organization fills more than 600 transitional jobs annually and one-year, same-firm retention rates are 20 percent higher than the national norm.
“One reason that Cara is so successful is that it embraces business, and they’re savvy about what makes a business successful,” says Andrew Mckenna president of DirecTech. “I think it’s a reason why their graduates end up being great long-term employees. Cara understands the business environment, so it was easy for us to work with them.”
DirecTech began working with Cara Connects in the second quarter of 2019. Andrew and his business partner Ken Anderson had learned about the nonprofit through Stand Together (Ken and Andrew are Stand Together partners). They met Cara CEO and President Maria Kim at the organization’s downtown Chicago office and heard powerful stories from Cara participants about their struggles to overcome long-term unemployment.
“Long-term unemployment has a very disorienting quality to it,” Andrew says. “It made me think of somebody standing at railroad tracks, and a train is going by, and they just don’t know how to get back on the train. Our economy moves so quickly: If you’re out of work for six months or a year—and for some of these people it’s been longer—the whole workplace is different than it was when you left, and you start to feel farther and farther away. And so part of what we brainstormed with Cara was, could we create an experience that was a bridge for people? That could be both economically sustainable and help people earn money and get some skills that would give them the confidence to seek other jobs?”
The resulting partnership between Cara Connects and DirecTech has funneled 30 Cara participants to DirecTech, with positions ranging from writers to managers. Some workers obtain entry-level experience, build their confidence and resume, and move on to other jobs. Others become full-time employees from the start. Andrew mentions Cara participants Rachelle Soller, a part-time employee turned full-time staffer who became unemployed when her family’s website production business collapsed. “She’s extremely bright, she’s a creative thinker, and we’re thrilled to have her as part of our organization,” says Andrew.
“You wonder, how does a person with that talent level struggle to find a job?”— Andrew McKenna
Sarah is proof that sometimes life doesn’t go as planned, but it is possible to find your footing again and thrive in the workplace. After she joined the writing/fulfillment team for DirecTech, she was promoted to team lead in January 2020. She now manages six people who are creating copy to market local businesses that have been most affected by the pandemic— helping them, too, get through difficult times. Given the economic downturn and the coronavirus pandemic, Sarah is grateful not only for her job but for working remotely as she cares for her mother, a lung cancer survivor who is especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
Sarah praises Cara’s training program. The core curriculum program was a welcome refresher course on subjects such as communicating effectively and managing different personalities, but it also offered life-changing personal lessons.
“I found that it took me through a deep emotional journey about the kind of person I’d been and how I had taken for granted the great companies that I’d worked for, though I certainly gave them my all,” she says. “I took for granted how good I had it.” She was also humbled by her Cara comrades and the challenges they’d faced. Some Cara participants have overcome everything from homelessness to drug addiction.
“My heart went out to the individuals around me and it transformed my attitude about being in the workplace, about being thankful for things big and small,” she says. “It opened my eyes to the struggle of others and made me want to be more involved in my community. I will never take for granted some of the things I took for granted before.”
Photo header: A Cara participant is surrounded by colleagues as she “rings the bell” — a Cara tradition that signals someone securing a new, external job.
Photo credit: David Johnson