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Kadner: Offering hope to the unemployed

Career counselor Paul Bender leads orientatifor clients Oak Forest Illinois WorkNet Center old Oak Forest Hospital campus Oak Forest Illinois

Career counselor Paul Bender leads the orientation for clients at the Oak Forest Illinois WorkNet Center at the old Oak Forest Hospital campus in Oak Forest, Illinois, Tuesday, April 2, 2013. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 4, 2013 6:26AM



This is where the unemployed of the Southland come looking for help and hope.

They want to go back to school, learn a new skill and land a job so they can pay the bills.

This is your tax money at work, trying to put people back to work.

The sign outside the imposing, brown brick Building B on the campus of the former Oak Forest Hospital at 159th Street and Cicero Avenue reads “Oak Forest Illinois WorkNet Center 2nd floor.”

It is one of 10 such centers in the Chicago area operated under the umbrella of the Chicago-Cook Workforce Partnership — a program formed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to consolidate government resources and bring together contracting agencies and programs to help the unemployed.

Unfortunately, not enough people know about the training centers, which have been open about a year.

A resource room on the second floor of Building B offers two rows of computers for use by anyone seeking a job, along with a fax machine, copier and a telephone. There isn’t much privacy, but if your low on funds and have to communicate with the outside world, it’s a wonderful service,

Rapid Response Teams — composed of federal, state and county government agencies — are available to visit employees at any business planning a large number of layoffs.

All of this is funded through $50 million in federal and other grants.

“It just puts you in touch with opportunities, and that’s what you need when you’re unemployed,” Therese Finley, 44, of Blue Island, said.

Finley worked for 13 years as a customer service representative with an aviation company near Midway Airport before she was laid off.

A single mother with a 12-year-old son, Finley hopes for something more than a minimum-wage job but wasn’t sure what she was qualified to do when she arrived at the training center,

“They provided me with a lot of help, but the most important thing they gave me was Ollie,” she said, referring to a professional case worker assigned to her.

While anyone in Cook County can use the resource room at the training centers, only those who file for unemployment and fill out other paperwork are assigned a case worker,

“Ollie made me realize that as someone who dealt with customers and a person who likes dealing with the public, there are any number of possible careers open to me,” Finley said. “I could be a receptionist, do data entry at a customer call-in center and be the contact person for any company that provides customer services.”

She uses the resource center to take online typing and computer classes called Prove It that offer certificates of achievement that can be presented to employers to demonstrate proficiency in skills such as MicroSoft’s Excel spreadsheet program.

Those online computer programs do not require that someone be unemployed or file for unemployment compensation to use them.

For those who don’t know how to use a computer, there are training sessions to help them learn. There is also personal guidance on writing a resume.

Anita Ruiz, 45, another Blue Island resident, said some of the best advice she received was to move a reference that she was bilingual from the bottom of her resume to the top.

A former door-to-door vacuum cleaner saleswoman and former assistant manager for the Resurrection Ministries resale shop, after six months of unemployment Ruiz has interviewed for a security guard position and believes she will get hired.

“Being bilingual was one of the reasons they’re interested in me,” she said. “But the main thing I got coming here was self-esteem. They made me feel like I had something to offer an employer and could find work.”

Remaining “hopeful’ was a theme repeated by Dorethea Barnes, 50, of Calumet Park, a former customer service representative for the Chicago Bar Association, and Linda Fields, 51, of Matteson.

“I love it!” Fields said about the work training center, “I tell people this is the place to be. If you need a skill to re-enter the job market, they will give you the training for it.”

Twice a week in the afternoon, the training center has a Job Club where prospective employers sometimes talk to job hunters, but the clients of the training center said the club also serves as a support group where lessons learned are often shared.

Several government grants for education programs are also offered through the workforce partnership, which is working closely with community colleges.

Darryl Barr, 27, of Harvey, was referred to the center by South Suburban College because he wants to obtain a commercial driver’s license. Once a newspaper pressman, Barr now hopes to drive a truck for a living.

Grants are available that allow the unemployed to obtain CDL training from an authorized driving school. There are also grants for medical training and the hospitality industry at community colleges, as well as other continuing education programs.

Ironically, federal budget cuts caused by the sequester have resulted in layoffs or cuts in agencies that offered programs through the workforce partnership.

The people who help the unemployed are facing unemployment themselves.

This is the sort of government program that should be receiving more help, not less. And people need to know it exists.

The telephone number for the Oak Forest WorkNet Center is (708) 633-2760. There’s also a Chicago Heights center at 1010 Dixie Highway, telephone (708) 709-3000.

You can also find out more about the Cook County program and those offered in other counties at Illlinoisworknet,com.

It’s help. And that means hope.



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