Focus, Human Resources, and Nonprofits

Guiding Light's Back to Work empowers men to re-enter workforce

Organization trains men to be good workers and employment agencies are taking notice.

October 10, 2014
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An interdenominational faith-based organization is lighting the path for those who hit a bump in the economic road to re-engage with the community through new employment and permanent housing.

Guiding Light Mission, a Grand Rapids-based organization providing services and opportunities for those in need, has been helping men re-enter the workforce through its short-term comprehensive Back to Work program.

As part of Guiding Light’s Community Re-Engagement Initiative, the program is for those who have experienced economic hardships, providing an opportunity to become re-engaged in the workforce and become a contributing member of society while saving money and staying in a safe and drug-free environment.

Members of the 90-day program are provided a bed, free meals and access to phone and computer services as they search for employment, prepare résumés and look for permanent housing.

Within 30 days, the men find employment and are given the opportunity to save money in a Guiding Light savings account to build financial stability. Basic requirements to join the program include possession of a driver’s license or state I.D., a Social Security card and the ability to pass a drug screening.

Stuart Ray, executive director at Guiding Light Mission, said the program provides opportunities for individuals to build self-esteem and self-confidence and become contributing members of society.

“We really hope a man will walk out of here with $2,000 or $3,000 in his pocket, having saved his money. A lot of that has to do with financial liability he may have when he arrives, such as Friend of Court or work garnishments or other legal issues,” said Ray. “We don’t use any subsidies for this group. … We kind of believe in doing this the old-fashioned way: get a job, save your money, develop an exit strategy, go to college or buy a car.”

Ray said the program was developed after learning most of the men at the mission wanted to re-engage with the community but felt trapped due to a lack of resources to move forward. Although many cited interest in the construction industry, tools and steel-toed boots necessary for the work were not available to them. After putting together an advisory group facilitated by a non-staff member, Ray said he learned the men wanted to be held accountable and needed a hand up rather than a hand-out.

“In 2010, I shut the TV off and said, ‘OK, God gave you gifts. Giddyup, here we go,’” said Ray. “We put a phone system in place so they really have unlimited phone service. We upgraded computers, we started handing out bus passes, but we expected something in return for that. All of the men had chores around the facility, so there was a model of reciprocity.”

After the Guiding Light’s board of directors granted approval to pursue the initiative in 2010, the initial framework began in 2011 with a strategic plan that was published in 2012. Since launching in 2012, the Back to Work program has assisted approximately 350 men, according to Ray.

“We have put about 350 men back into the workforce; conservatively, that is about a $7 million contribution these men have made to society when you calculate earnings at $9 or $10 an hour,” he said. “Generally, this population does not circle back into shelters. That is probably the best measurement device that I have.”

Although Guiding Light currently has numerous partnerships with employment agencies in the area to help the members find employment quickly, Ray said the organization had to work to earn trust and demonstrate the commitment level from those looking for a job through the program.

“It was like pushing a rock uphill early on. Most of the agencies that had some experience with Guiding Light or some of the other ministries kind of walked away from those relationships because they weren’t getting the commitment from the employee they were looking for,” said Ray. “Slowly, we demonstrated to the agencies that we were serious about this and would hold our client — their employee — accountable at the end of the day.”

Current relationships with agencies include Aims Advantage, Manpower, Forge Industrial, Workbox Staffing, Adecco, Gill Staffing and Williamson Employment Group. Due to its success over the past couple of years, Ray said employers are beginning to call Guiding Light for candidates to fill open positions, based on their work-ready ability.

“Most of them who show up have work experience. We will send them to Goodwill Achieve if we feel there is some gap in their experience or expertise,” said Ray. “What employers like about this is men coming into Guiding Light have to have their employment I.D. They are drug tested here so when they show up to the employer, they really are work-ready.”

As a free program, the initiative is funded through contributions by approximately 6,500 to 6,700 loyal donors, according to Ray. With a gospel rescue mission, Ray said the Back to Work program incorporates a reconstruction model to empower rather than enable.

“We think that God has provided men and women special gifts and talents. This notion that God ordains work, that God has given you special gifts and talents, sells well to this group,” said Ray in reference the donors. “I am not doing anyone any favors if I keep them entrapped in this rescue model system.”

One way the organization is looking at ways to assist the men while maintaining a level of accountability is by pursuing transitional housing to provide living arrangements at a lower cost than the market rate and also as a cash flow for the ministry.

Established in 1929, Guiding Light is located at 255 S. Division Ave. and has been providing food, shelter and rehabilitation services to men since that time.

“West Michigan still has a decent work ethic — we do believe in work, we do believe in pulling up our bootstraps, we do believe in getting out there and making a contribution.

“We also believe in keeping people safe and secure, so we work very hard at that, too,” said Ray. “If you are looking for a change, looking to get back on your feet, looking for a safe environment, and some cheerleading, some biblical work and finding a job — this is the appropriate place.”

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