Rising Above

Community Program Provides Mentors Resources to Reduce Unemployment

By Kate McDermott | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 06.27.16 – Diversions, Lifestyles

Jason Lee understands better than most the stigma attached to the term “public housing.” He grew up in what is now Lucas Village (previously known as Sagner), one of the Housing Authority of the City of Frederick’s low-income housing communities. “It’s my story,” Lee says. “I eat, breathe, sleep it.” But he doesn’t let it define him.

Today, Lee is the CEO of Lee Building Maintenance in Frederick. He recognizes the role mentors played in his success and he wants to give others in public housing the same support and encouragement he received. “I think these communities can get a bad rap,” he says. “My dad worked construction. It was seasonal. I don’t know how my parents managed, but I do know this: People want to work. They want the American Dream.”

Given both his personal history and his role as the current president of the Rotary Club of Carroll Creek, it’s no surprise Lee is one of the biggest cheerleaders for the three-year-old RISE (Rotarian Initiative for Successful Employment) program, which aims to reduce unemployment in Frederick’s public housing communities by assisting dedicated adults through a variety of public and private services such as training workshops, internships, childcare, transportation assistance, mentoring and networking.

RISE has helped reduce the unemployment rate in Lucas Village from 28 percent to 13 percent.

Rotary Club of Carroll Creek members searched high and wide for a mentoring program they could emulate but, to their surprise, didn’t find anything. “We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, but there really wasn’t anything for us to follow,” Lee says.

So club member Bernard Gouin, a local corporate finance consultant, began working with Ann Ryan, director of Family Services for the Housing Authority of the City of Frederick, and other community organizations such as the YMCA of Frederick County, Second Chances Garage, Frederick County Workforce Services and Frederick Community College to develop a network of resources that could help Lucas Village residents in their efforts to find and keep jobs.

RISE is a community project, so mentors are recruited from throughout Frederick County.

The response from Rotary Club members, community leaders and other local organizations such as the Women’s Giving Circle has been “phenomenal,” Gouin says.

It also helped that Ryan put together a well-organized program of training sessions, workshops and materials for RISE mentors and their mentees to follow. The RISE committee confers with mentors to find the best matches and provides initial training and feedback sessions, but other than that, “It is up to the mentors to manage their communication and dynamics with their mentees, including how often they meet, when and where, etc.,” Gouin says.

It’s a formula that’s clearly working. RISE has helped reduce the unemployment rate in Lucas Village from 28 percent to 13 percent, with only one program participant out of 37 not completing the program. “We’ve seen success in every person, whether that be getting a driver’s license, their high school diploma, or working toward their associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degrees,” Ryan says. “For some, it’s just learning how to keep a job.”

Lee has fielded inquiries from other Rotary clubs about how RISE could be replicated in other communities. But Ryan and he agree that their immediate goal is to extend it to other public housing communities in Frederick such as the Carver community.

Starting Over

Laure Hean and her husband, Jean Roger Hean, came to Frederick in 2013 from Cameroon. She is a physician, he is a pastor. They gave up their relatively comfortable life in the central African country to join her sister in Frederick. In doing so, they had to start all over.

Yet, over the course of four months, the Heans found housing for their family in Lucas Village. They enrolled their daughters in school and began working on their own careers as well. They found the help they needed through RISE.

“We’ve seen success in every person, whether that be getting a driver’s license, their high school diploma, or working towards their associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degrees.”

Laure was paired with Helen Maleady, an accountant and director of finance for NASW Assurance Services in Frederick. Although their professional backgrounds were different, Laure says Maleady “knew my goals and always made sure I had the information I needed.” That started with how to get a Maryland driver’s license. Once she had that, Laure could pursue an internship in community health education that RISE arranged for her with the Asian American Center of Frederick. Then Maleady—and even Maleady’s husband—helped Laure research the steps she needed to take to earn her medical license in the United States.

Jean Roger completed the RISE program as well, landing an internship at Community Living that ultimately led to a full-time position there. He also hopes to establish a church in Frederick, but he and Laure are happy that for now they are able to hold Sunday services in the Community Room at Lucas Village.

Opening Doors

Those involved in RISE say it’s really as simple as helping residents of Lucas Village access the marketplace. “Too often our residents think that opportunities are never really for them,” Ryan says. “The partnerships we have made through RISE give our residents a chance to succeed.”

Growing up in public housing, Lee understands better than most the difference mentors and the opportunities they present for networking can make. He says he was “blessed” to have a mentor,

but at the end of the day, “He opened the door. I still had to walk through it.”

Kandy Alexander walked through that door, too. She saw a flyer about the RISE program in the Family Services Office in Lucas Village and followed up with Ryan. A single mom, Alexander realized she needed to further her education in order to create a better future for herself and her two children. Through RISE, she was mentored by Brenda Main from Damascus Community Bank. Main encouraged Alexander as she worked full-time on her associate’s degree in human services while also completing her RISE internship working with residents of the Catoctin View Apartments, a housing community for low-income and disabled seniors in Frederick.

That internship helped Alexander gain valuable administrative and project management skills and ultimately led to a full-time position with the Housing Authority. But in the end, Main became more than simply a professional mentor to Alexander. During their regular meetings over coffee, Alexander says Main also became a friend, someone she says helped her “look at things in my life on a different level.”

Alexander says through RISE she has had the opportunity to speak to a lot of people about the program. With each encounter, her confidence builds—and so does her professional network. She serves on the Frederick County Affordable Housing Council and has her eyes set on other ways she can serve her community. “I definitely see myself mentoring in RISE someday down the road,” she says.