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Local program helps people get back on the job

At 24, Central Kitsap resident Stephanie Yerkan has it all — a healthy son, a strong marriage, an education and a stable job at Kitsap Physicians Service in Bremerton.

Two years ago, her story was very different. Yerkan was out of work with no job prospects, while student loans and other bills piled up.

With help from Kitsap Community Jobs, a regional job development program, Yerkan overcame the financial insecurity which cropped up around her as the Puget Sound’s once-booming economy began to bust.

“I am able-bodied and I feel I should work 40 hours a week,” Yerkan said. “So you do what you can, and I decided I wasn’t leaving the Community Jobs program without full-time employment.”

Administered by Kitsap County, Community Jobs serves out–of-work residents in Kitsap, Clallam and Jefferson counties. It has a $1.13 million grant-funded budget renewable every 18 months.

The county contracts with Bremerton-based Kitsap Community Resources to administer the program. The service agency matches local jobless residents with part-time employment and training opportunities.

The idea is to help needy families transition from public assistance to gainful employment and independence.

To that end, Kitsap Community Resources partners with employers to take on people in need.

Employ-ers don’t pay Community Jobs trainees wages or benefits. Those costs are subsidized by the state, which also covers continuing education for the trainees.

Job matches in the public sector can last up to nine months, while private-sector matches last as long as five months.

Community Jobs participants might or might not be hired by their job-match employers at the end of the program. Those who aren’t hired have the benefit of a more impressive resumé after participation in Community Jobs.

Yerkan started as a trainee with KPS in February, and was hired full-time in July.

“As soon as I got the part-time job at KPS, I brought in pictures of my son and husband and I brought in my boom box,” she said. “I knew I was there to stay and I made sure to learn as much as I could so that they would hire me full time. You have to have the right mindset going in.”

Not all Community Jobs participants have similar successes. Statewide, 61 percent move on to unsubsidized employment. Those who don’t usually roll back into another form of public assistance.

“After the program is over, a bit more than half of the participants are successful,” said Bob Potter, human services coordinator for the Community Jobs program. “The other half rolls back to the state Department of Human Services or other workforce development programs. To be honest, some folks just want a check and then be left alone.”

The participants who do find permanent employment save thousands of taxpayer dollars, according to Kitsap Community Resources employment and training manager O.J. Hogan. Community Jobs can accept 92 applicants from Kitsap County this year, Hogan said. If two-thirds of them graduate, taxpayers could save as much as $793,000 annually in unpaid benefits.

Yerkan is one of the 61 percent who graduated.

Two years ago, Yerkan lost her job as a massage therapist six weeks after her baby was born. At the same time, her husband, a construction worker, was accepted to college under a federal grant program. He plans to be a computer programmer.

After searching for work on her own, Yerkan turned to the state Department of Social and Health Services. She was not eligible for unemployment compensation because her massage therapy job had been part time. Yerkan knew she couldn’t support her family on fast-food restaurant wages alone — She needed a full-time office job.

Today, Yerkan and her family no longer need assistance. She and her husband are renting a home, paying their bills and getting him through school.

Sometimes there’s even money left over at the end of the month.

“We can save money, and if we want to see a movie or get a bite to eat, it isn’t such a big deal anymore,” she said. “It’s so wonderful.”

A fresh start in a new home

Shawn Sutton is glad she transplanted her family from Vallejo, Calif. to Bremerton nearly a year ago.

Her son has joined a local football team and has made friends. That comforts Sutton — the 17-year-old boy had started to form harmful habits when he lived in California.

Sutton also fled an unhealthy relationship and has kicked a serious drug habit. Sutton said she feels she’s receiving a fresh start in Washington.

Sutton received public assistance in California, but that state had no programs that encouraged recipients to become wholly independent.

She prefers the program here, she said, where welfare recipients can opt to join community jobs, Workfirst programs, or other job development programs.

Sutton said she enjoys her Community Jobs placement with the Silverdale Chamber of Commerce, where she started work in April.

“I enjoy working with people,” she said. “It’s exciting when people from different states call wanting information about the area.”

In addition to working part time, Sutton attends school at Olympic College.

“I am thinking about becoming a family-service specialist,” she said. “At school, I am taking keyboarding classes, math and other courses.”

When she’s not working or attending classes, Sutton is studying or making sure dinner is on the table for her three children.

Sutton said if the chamber offers her a full-time job, she’d gladly take it while finishing her education.

“We think the program is outstanding,” said Lisa Cheshier, the administrative services coordinator for the chamber. “We’ve got top-quality people from them. We are happy with Shawn and the job she is doing for us and we get great feedback from Shawn’s supervisors.”

A change of profession, a change of fortunes

Chuck Bowen moved his family from Oregon to Bremerton earlier this year after being laid off from his job as a machinist.

But despite rumors to the contrary, Bowen found there wasn’t much work in the Puget Sound region. A settlement package offered by the Oregon company didn’t go very far, and he did not qualify for unemployment compensation.

“I felt awkward about asking for help, but I didn’t want to take a job at Taco Bell,” the 27-year-old said. “I needed to feed my family.”

Bowen entered the Community Jobs program and landed a part-time gig at LK’s Auto in Bremerton.

LK’s co-owner and manager Keith Knowlton said he gladly will hire Bowen full time if everything works out in the months ahead.

“Chuck seems like a guy who is willing to learn,” said Knowlton. “I’ve tried other people through different agencies but none of them ever seemed to work out before.”

Although times were tough for Bowen, he said he and his family are glad they moved to Kitsap County.

“I don’t regret moving here,” he said. “I’ve learned to do oil changes and I am learning how to replace a clutch today. I hope to stay on and learn more.”

Bowen has four months left at LK’s Auto under Community Jobs.

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