As director of the McGruder Family Resource Center in North Nashville, Alisha Haddock encounters people on a daily basis who have a wide range of needs: some seek emergency food and rent assistance, others are looking to improve their budgeting skills with a financial literacy class. Most weekday mornings, women gather downstairs for the Sewing Training Academy; once a week entrepreneurs meet to learn more about designing, launching or rebranding their businesses.
When Haddock witnesses the successes of her clients, such as a positive job interview, "I immediately see hope," she said. "I see tenacity in people, they are not giving up," whether they have recently lost a job, or are facing barriers to employment like limited literacy or English language skills, disabilities or health issues, a past criminal record or long periods of unemployment.
For years, McGruder, a United Way center managed by Catholic Charities of Tennessee, has served the North Nashville community by primarily meeting immediate needs of clients. But that is shifting with the planned expansion of on-site job training and workforce development opportunities.
"My vision is for this to be a place for opportunity," said Haddock, who grew up in the North Nashville neighborhood, the daughter of a minister. "We want to find out where people's passion lies, and move toward finding people a job they want to do."
The desire to perform meaningful work for a fair wage is a common human need and one affirmed time and again in the teachings of the Catholic faith. Jesus, after all, labored as a carpenter during his earthly life. For more than a century, papal encyclicals have affirmed the dignity of work and the rights of workers, and Pope Francis follows in that tradition. "Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment," he wrote in his encyclical "Laudato Si."
"Everyone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community," states the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Job training 3.0
To give people a hand up in finding meaningful work and advancing their careers, Catholic Charities and its partner organizations, many based at McGruder, are stepping up their job training efforts.
"We're moving on a continuum that allows families to move closer to fiscal sustainability, up to and well over the poverty line," said Mark Barry, director of mission advancement for Catholic Charities. "We want to help local residents who haven't been part of Nashville's collective growth the way others have."
Barry describes the new programs as "job training 3.0, an evolution in workforce development," designed to train clients for higher skilled jobs that have opportunities for advancement. These include a commercial dishwasher training program, currently based at Loaves and Fishes, and a Certified Nursing Assistant training program, in partnership with Metro General Hospital.
Catholic Charities' Sewing Training Academy, one of the programs that receives support from the Bishop's Annual Appeal for Ministries, recently moved into a downstairs classroom at McGruder. It just started a new 6-week class session, training participants to work in Nashville's growing fashion industry.
The skills gained through the Academy are "absolutely necessary as a first step" to find a job working in the industry, said Academy graduate Lakika Scott, who now works part-time as an alterations specialist at David's Bridal in Nashville.
At her job interview, Scott was required to take a sewing test, and "I applied everything I learned in the class," to complete the task and land the job.
"When I told my manager about the training academy, she said they actually prefer that type of training versus someone coming from fashion school."
While Scott has a full-time job working for the State of Tennessee, she said the income from working an additional part-time job at the bridal shop is helping support her passion for fashion and personal styling, which could become a future career path.
"I know the demand is there," for more skilled sewers like herself, Scott said. She has referred friends to the Sewing Training Academy and let people know about the opportunities available. "I would recommend it to anyone."
In another part of the McGruder Center, Haddock and Anthony Agosti, employment coordinator for Catholic Charities Refugee Services, are busy designing a hotel "learning lab" where they will have a formal training program for future hotel housekeepers. In the lab, which includes two hotel beds with full linens and a cleaning cart, clients will learn everything from efficiently making a bed to effectively communicating with supervisors.
"The scale of what we're doing here makes it unique," Haddock said. "No one's doing it quite like this," offering five full days of training and a partnership with industry professionals.
Gena Shearon, human resources director for the Holiday Inn Vanderbilt, is working with Catholic Charities to provide staff who will train participants in the housekeeping program. She foresees that those who complete the training will be "10 steps ahead of everybody" when they start a new job. "It's a win-win," she said.
With Nashville's booming tourism and hospitality industries, housekeepers and other hotel positions, from front desk managers to banquet servers, are in high demand. In the hospitality industry, "you can go as far as you want to go," Haddock said. And in Catholic Charities' workforce development programs, "we're not just training housekeepers, we're training leaders," who can take the initiative to advance their careers, she said.
In the hospitality business, "the ceiling is much higher," than in some other industries, said Agosti, who has been building partnerships with local hotels, so they will help train and eventually hire his clients. "By building strong relationships with employers, and providing them with good employees, we hope to be in better position to negotiate with them," he said, advocating for better wages, hours and benefits.
"These people have families," said Haddock. "We have to be up front about the need for a fair wage ... and the challenges of riding the bus and finding child care."
Catholic Charities clients who successfully complete a job training program have excellent prospects for full-time employment, but there are still tough hurdles to clear for them to remain gainfully employed. In Nashville, which has experienced some of the sharpest rent and cost-of-living increases in the country in recent years, lower income residents, including refugees, immigrants, and those transitioning off government assistance, are being pushed further outside the city center, where most of the better jobs are.
"With gentrification, the property values go up and so do property taxes. If they go too high, they can force some of the long -term residents of the neighborhood to sell," Haddock said.
"The neighborhood has changed so much in the last five to six years," she said. "You see the disparities very clearly now." In certain pockets of North Nashville, it's not uncommon for landlords to sell out to developers who build half-million dollar houses "right down the road from people who can't afford to put food on the table, so we have a problem," Haddock said.
Affordable housing, transportation and childcare are three commonly intertwined issues that many Catholic Charities clients across the Midstate face, which can be a roadblock to maintaining steady employment. A family might live in Smyrna or even Lebanon but work downtown, which makes for long and onerous commutes, especially with Middle Tennessee's ever-worsening traffic problems. "It can be really frustrating," said Agosti.
‘Faith drives the passion'
Thom Druffel, general manager of the Holiday Inn Vanderbilt and a member of the Catholic Business League who has spent his career in the hospitality industry, understands where employees are coming from, and wants to meet them where they are.
One way to do that is by offering perks like fully paid bus fare for all employees after 60 days and $1.50 lunches at the hotel. He also notes that most positions in the hotel are full time with potential for overtime pay, and include health benefits and a 401k match.
Druffel oversees a staff of about 100 at the hotel, men and women from many different countries, religious and ethnic backgrounds, people with disabilities, and veterans. "We have a very diverse workforce," he said.
By working with a variety of community partners, including Catholic Charities and Vanderbilt's Next Steps program for students with special needs, Druffel has been able to tap into a pipeline of diverse and committed workers.
"We try to build a sense of community here, and make it a place people want to work," Druffel said. "The goal is to have long-tenured employees."
Druffel and Shearon keep an eye out for future leaders in the hotel, and want to help committed employees get scholarships to further their education. "How do we create opportunities for people who have the desire?" Druffel said. "How do we create channels for people who may not have the opportunity otherwise?" such as the immigrant or the young adult with special needs.
Guided by his decades-long career in hospitality, Druffel knows how to manage hotel employees and make solid business decisions. But for him, there's another guiding mantra at work. Druffel's former pastor, the late Father Philip Breen, often said, "‘to whom much is given, much is expected.' When he said that, you believed it," Druffel said.
"The way we treat employees has a lot to do with faith," he said. "Faith drives the passion a little more."
'Teaching people to fish'
As the McGruder Center continues to grow and evolve, under the leadership of Catholic Charities, it is poised to be a more vital "one stop shop" where people can get the immediate help they need, and plug into services that put them on the path to self-sufficiency.
At Catholic Charities' North Nashville Outreach office, clients might come in to get an emergency food box or help with utility bills, but leave with a lead on a job. "People come in to McGruder because they need something," Haddock said. "Then they realize we have so much more to offer here."
That was exactly the case for client Donna Buford, who lives nearby and stopped by the Outreach office at McGruder looking for help to pay her rent. From there, she got enrolled in a financial literacy class. "That helped me budget and learn different stuff I could do to help make ends meet." She also learned how to make a budget, "what's supposed to be paid first, and what to leave out."
Haddock has been working with Buford on a job search, trying to find positions that can accommodate her limited mobility, the result of a back injury from a car accident. "I used to work doing child care, but I can't anymore," Buford said. She hasn't found anything yet, so "we're still searching."
No matter Buford's needs, the Catholic Charities staff and community volunteers at the McGruder Center, "always listen to the stuff I'm going through and try to give me ways to fix the issue," she said.
By offering services ranging from a food pantry to job training and counseling to entrepreneurship classes and more under one roof, "we're giving people fish, but we're also teaching people to fish," Haddock said.