Cornelius Macon, an alumnus of the North Lawndale Employment Network, during a Feb. 19 benefit luncheon downtown where he was honored. | Submitted photo.

When she was released from prison, Elaine Austin was determined to rebuild her life as a productive citizen — not as a statistic.

“I wasn’t going to be labeled an ex-offender,” she said. “I’m taking my life back.”

Austin, who now works as case manager at Catholic Charities, achieved that goal with the help of the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) — an organization founded in 1999 to help unemployed and underemployed people acquire skills and find jobs and careers.

The organization grew out of 18 months of planning among community leaders and representatives of various area nonprofits and social service agencies convened by the Steans Family Foundation in 1997.

The NLEN’s establishment was a grassroots response to the community’s need for employment opportunities, said Brenda Palmes Barber, the NLEN’s executive director since its founding.

“The founders of NLEN recognized the potential for rebound and empowerment in the community, through programs that focus on improving the earnings potential of its residents,” she said.

Since its founding, the organization’s programming has varied, but the basic — which is to work with residents who face barriers to employment because of various obstacles, such as a lack of skills, a lack of work experience or criminal records — has remained the same.

Prior convictions are an especially acute problem in North Lawndale, where more than half of the adult residents have criminal records, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

 According to Barber, the organization’s programs are free to its clients. And while they try to help as many residents as possible, there are some entry requirements.

“We do have an intake process to identify any supportive needs, ensure [that applicants have] a minimum reading level of 8th grade, can pass a drug test, and demonstrate they are ready to work the program,” Barber said.

The organization’s “U-Turn Permitted” program is one of its cornerstone offerings and teaches skills that would help clients find and keep employment. It also teaches life skills, such as conflict resolution, team building and financial literacy. Clients with criminal backgrounds are also educated in constitutional law and on ways to expunge their records.

Barber added that, in addition to its in-house programs, NLEN partners with local employers to expand employment opportunities for clients. The organization is hoping to partner with Cinespace Chicago Studios in North Lawndale, she said.

“We are very excited about the job opportunities available through Cinespace Chicago Studios and hope we can explore the opportunity of developing a rapport and establishing a placement agreement,” said Barber.

And when it isn’t placing clients into jobs with outside employers, NLEN is engaged with employing people directly through its own entrepreneurial ventures. In 2004, it launched Sweet Beginnings, a line of skincare products made from locally sourced honey. The business offers transitional jobs for NLEN clients with criminal backgrounds.

Recently, NLEN honored businessman Bob Mariano, who recently agreed to sell Sweet Beginnings products in his chain of Mariano’s grocery stores, at a Feb. 19 benefit lunch.

The organization also honored Austin and Cornelius Macon, another of its alumnus, who was released from prison in 2013 before going through NLEN and landing a job at a Mariano’s in Greektown. He’s since been promoted several times and is currently a manager of the frozen food section.

The benefit, Barber noted, has become increasingly important to its general fundraising repertoire, since more traditional means of funding have become harder to come by as more workforce development organizations compete for an increasingly limited pool of funds.

“The dollars to support workforce development continue to decline and competition for these limited dollars increases,” she said. “Diversifying funding resources is critical and carving out your agencies’ unique advantages over others is taxing, when we are all committed to improving the earnings potential and quality of life for those who are income insecure and want to move out of poverty.”  

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...

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