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StepUp expands programs, clients

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By Laura Williams-Tracy

RALEIGH, N.C. — Sticking it out, John Bush figures, is behind almost all successes in life.

The people who pass through StepUP Ministry, the nonprofit agency Bush leads, find steady jobs and comfortable, safe housing if they can make it through a year of intensive coaching and training, and then stick with a job.

And the agency itself stuck it out for 16 years until a sizable grant awarded in 2004 helped StepUp expand its programs and offer participants a greater shot at a self-sustaining life.

A year after moving beyond simply linking the homeless or near-homeless to safe and affordable housing, the Raleigh-based nonprofit now offers a year-long, phased and incentive-driven program that not only leads to housing, but also brings life skills and sustainable employment.

“Our commitment is to build up individuals to go through a transition as people of capacity,” says Bush, adding that four in 10 of StepUP’s clients are recovering from some form of substance abuse, and an even greater percentage have a criminal background.

“We as a society have told them over and over again that they don’t amount to much,” says Bush. “StepUP says that the past is the past and that we want to believe in them.”

StepUP Ministry began in 1988 when members of Raleigh’s White Memorial Presbyterian Church launched the nonprofit with the primary goal of providing transitional housing for working families who were homeless.

About 250 families went through the program, with about three in four of them ending up in permanent housing, Bush says.

But the majority found themselves in financial crisis again, most often because of the loss of a not-so-reliable job.

Three years ago, StepUP received a six-year, $1.5 million grant from the church’s White Memorial Community Fund to build a more comprehensive program focusing on the intertwined goals of gaining a reliable job, gaining education and finding permanent housing.

People come to the program from local shelters, government agencies and churches, while others are referred by friends.

Once in the program they receive a week of intensive orientation centered on skill assessments, resume development and workshops on conflict management, communications and interviewing skills.

StepUP then works to hone a job candidate’s skills, ensure they are motivated to work and match up talents with the right employer.

StepUP placed 184 people in entry-level jobs in 2006, and 25 of those have moved up to new positions with their employers.

The six-month retention rate for employees placed by StepUP is almost 80 percent, which Bush says is far better than the general retention rate for most any industry’s entry level positions.

This year, Bush hopes to place 225 people in first-time jobs and help another 75 move up.

After six months in a job, StepUP helps participants find opportunities for training, with the goal of advancing at work.

Program participants also find immediate financial rewards for sticking with a program, including a $100 check for such accomplishments as staying at a job for six months, paying down debt or taking educational courses and earning good grades.

In the past year, 11 people have graduated from StepUP’s life skills program out of 30 who began. Bush says the program’s organizers are still trying to determine what a reasonable graduation rate is.

“We want to increase our retention rate but not so we are only dealing with those who will be successful,” Bush say. “Success comes with sticking it out.”

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