By Kayla Schneider-Smith, 2016-17 Portland QVS Fellow
I’m ready to start my life over again, Tom* tells us at the start of his interview. As he speaks, intermittent sunlight flickers across his face and into the conference room through tall windows that look out onto the gray streets of Northwest Portland. Tom, like many of the individuals we work with at New City Initiative, is in the process of transitioning out of a decades-long struggle with substance abuse and homelessness. But even in his fifties, face pockmarked and weather-beaten, he possesses the infectious enthusiasm and energy of a twenty year old. He sports an oversized suit that drowns his shoulders as he confidently relays to us his intentions and capabilities that make him a good fit for our program.
New City Initiative’s New City Kitchen program is a three-week long training course for individuals experiencing barriers to employment, such as extensive history of homelessness, substance abuse, and/or felony charges. Trainees like Tom often come to us with erratic, gap-filled resumes, but with a great deal of purpose and desire to make a positive impression in the workplace. Each month, New City Initiative hires a cohort of 4-6 trainees who work downtown in a rented commercial kitchen space under the guidance of a qualified kitchen manager, acquiring basic kitchen skills, preparing gourmet sandwiches and salads, and carrying out a variety of catering gigs for local Portland businesses. In addition, once a week, trainees come to New City Initiative’s home office in Northeast Portland for a job skills in-service day. Every Wednesday the other interns and I get to better know the trainees as we review with them strategies for succeeding in the workplace, resume and cover letter writing, interview etiquette and developing personal mission statements.
Because New City Initiative views the cycle of homelessness as an issue primarily stemming from lack of supportive relationships, a crucial aspect of my work involves building meaningful connections with our kitchen trainees. And because those who seek out New City Initiative are generally in the process of transitioning back into housing, employment and stability, they bring with them incredible stories of perspective and resilience. I’ve had trainees tell me what it feels like to catch a wink of sleep in the rain near the freeway and still show up for work the next morning. Trainees that confess to me that there was a time when the world felt unreal to them, as if they were watching from the sidelines. And I’ve had trainees who admit that homelessness is the best thing that ever happened to them, because it forced them to wake up and re-evaluate life, to make some colossal changes and adjustments to the paths woven in their hearts.
This is the kind of inspiration I encounter every week at New City Initiative, and it is my honor and delight to work with individuals who are in the process of journeying through such powerful transitions in their lives. The work is never easy, but the trainees regularly demonstrate to me that life keeps going even after seemingly insurmountable circumstances. In fact, they all manage to maintain a gargantuan sense of humor and are some of the most open-hearted and nonjudgmental individuals I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Somehow, they are all sitting here in this job skills workshop with me, being funny and vulnerable and stubborn and kind. And the world is moved, made better by their stories.
*names and identities have been changed to protect confidentiality
For more information about the work of New City Initiative, visit their website here: www.newcityinitiative.net
NCI’s purpose is to foster communities where all people can achieve their full human potential. NCI envisions a “new community” of mutually transformative relationships with the power to end the intergenerational cycle of homelessness and poverty.