Twice a week, from September to January, Dave Kocka leaves his office at Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota in Willmar and takes the five-mile trip to Willmar high school.There, he teaches employment readiness courses to about 20 refugee youths who attend the school.
The area’s thriving turkey industry – and the jobs it creates – have drawn a large number of immigrants and refugees to Willmar and its surrounding communities.The city of about 20,000 people is estimated to have over 4,000 Latinos and perhaps 1,000 Somalis.
Goodwill-Easter Seals’ mission is to help people overcome barriers to work and independence. In Willmar, that means helping people who are new to the country learn the skills they need to get jobs and succeed at them.
Their work doesn’t just benefit immigrants and refugees, it benefits everyone. Shelly Huseby, Goodwill-Easter Seals” Services and Program Manager in Willmar, explains:
“We had one young mom who got laid off from her job. She was on unemployment and multiple public assistance programs. We were able to place her at a part-time job. She worked hard and in a little while she moved to full-time, and then later to full-time with benefits. She worked her way off all types of assistance. She was on several types of assistance and she moved off everything. That’s exactly what we want, helping people become independent.”
Recognizing needs and finding solutions
The program that takes Dave Kocka to Willmar high school twice a week is the result of the people at Goodwill-Easter Seals in Willmar understanding the needs of their community and using their network of connections to find a way to help.
Goodwill-Easter Seals partnered with the high school to create a year-long program to teach job and language skills to area immigrants and refugees. For the first semester of the school year they work in the classroom on job skills; during the school year’s second semester they have the opportunity to participate in paid work experience at the Goodwill retail store, where they have exposure to improving English language skills. After the school year trainings are completed they have the opportunity to be placed in jobs.
Shelly’s connection to the community has been an important part of getting Goodwill-Easter Seals involved. A member of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors for three years, she’s also now a member of Willmar’s Human Rights Commission.
Willmar Chamber of Commerce President Ken Warner is very aware of the work being done by Goodwill-Easter Seals in the community. “Goodwill has done training programs for people with disabilities and many different groups with different backgrounds and ethnicities,” he remarks.
Some of the support programs that have been developed were the result of recognizing areas of need and then finding solutions to help. One example came as the result of Goodwill-Easter Seals’ Services & Programs team in Willmar working with refugee moms who were part of the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP). They kept seeing single adults who, because of a gap in the services that were available, didn’t qualify for any program.
To help support the individuals who couldn’t qualify for help, they obtained a grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation to get the resources they needed.
Goodwill-Easter Seals has also developed practical solutions to help once an individual gets a job. One sometimes-overlooked barrier to work that immigrants and refugees face is transportation – how to get to a job. Shelly explains that “We’ve helped a lot of people with transportation by helping them prepare for their driver’s license test.”
Providing solutions that address community needs has proven to be effective. Since 2008, Goodwill-Easter Seals has more than doubled the number of individuals they’ve helped in Willmar.