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Willis Dady moving forward with new Employment Hub project
CEDAR RAPIDS — Several pieces of cardboard are on display behind the front desk of the Willis Dady center’s new Employment Hub. Each piece has a message that was written two years ago by a person experiencing homelessness.
The pieces of cardboard don’t have pleas for help or money. They have success stories and truths about the people who wrote them.
Kelsey Culver, employment services director for Willis Dady, said the signs are a way to celebrate the uniqueness and skills of the people the nonprofit works with, and the people who will be served by the new Willis Dady Employment Hub.
The hub is part of a larger social enterprise project that the nonprofit has been working toward since late 2019, when they received an anonymous donation meant to help further their work with employment, according to Willis Dady Executive Director Alicia Faust.
The project involves remodeling the old Chandler Pump Co. building at 707 B Ave. NW in Cedar Rapids to contain 13 supportive housing units where people exiting homelessness can live.
The nonprofit hopes to have those apartments finished by September so that people can start moving in during October.
The Employment Hub is next door to the apartments, at 800 First Ave. NW, and will be a place where Willis Dady clients can be employed and trained in various skills to help further their careers. The first pilot program at the hub will start during the last week of March, if all goes according to plan.
“We want to support our clients in growing in their career and finding long-term employment. So, whether they stay with us for a month, a year, whatever, that’s fantastic. But I always want to train people to think of the future,” Culver said.
Some of the jobs that will be offered at the Employment Hub include mattress recycling and furniture restoration. Culver said she hopes to turn the hub into a place where community members come regularly to get old furniture fixed.
“We want to train interested clients in upholstery. We’ve noticed there’s a big need in the upholstery industry in Cedar Rapids. There’s a long, long waiting list. And upholsterers are able to come in and train our clients to do the work,” Culver said.
Another benefit of upholstery is that it keeps old furniture out of landfills, according to Faust.
Mattresses and furniture can be hazardous when left in landfills, because of how long it takes them to breakdown and how easily they can catch fire, so restoring those things will not only provide work for Willis Dady clients, but also can help the environment, she said.
“That is really our focus here, as well,” Faust said. “How can we be eco-friendly while training our clients and giving back to the community in that aspect?”
While some parts of the social enterprise are still in the works, a pilot program for the mattress recycling is set to start at the end of March. The mattresses will be delivered to the Employment Hub by Johnson County landfill.
The hub has several sections, including the warehouse where the upholstery work will take place, a training center where clients can participate in job skills training and meet with their case managers, and free laundry and shower stations.
There’s also a room full of donated clothing that clients can take when they need professional clothes for an interview or other occasion.
“We recognize that it can be really hard to show up for work, or for training, or to meet with somebody, if you’re not feeling like your best self. So we wanted to have on-site resources here,” Culver said.
The social enterprise project as a whole is costing Willis Dady about $3.4 million. The money for the project comes from the anonymous donation in 2019, various fundraising efforts and funding received through the American Rescue Plan Act.
The ultimate goal of the project is to make sure everyone has the opportunity to find work, regardless of their background or current challenges, according to Faust.
“We are the ones doing the hiring and coaching and training, and we have the expertise and experience as trained case managers, working with individuals at risk of and experiencing homelessness,” Faust said. “We can tailor our approach as a supervisor and pair that with being a case manager to best serve our clients, to help them gain knowledge and experience.”
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