Making the Most of Change: Marthe’s Story

By Jonathan Bash December 27, 2018

Breaking poverty takes multiple strategies – and an affinity for change. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

That’s why Rubicon Programs has developed multiple approaches tailored to meet the needs of individuals, and of different East Bay communities.

In Oakland and Hayward, Rubicon offers job placement and career development services to those working to rise out of unemployment. Marthe is one of these individuals, and she’s striving to break poverty, make change and accomplish the goals she’s set for her life in a new land.

“I escaped violence in my home country of Cameroon,” Marthe says. “My family – my daughter, my grandson, and my sisters, nephews and nieces – brought me to Hayward.”

In Cameroon, Marthe was a nurse in a large hospital. She helped people. She made them well again.

“I like to take care of people,” she says. “I’ve been doing that my whole life. It makes me happy.”

Unfortunately, her back can no longer take the long hours on her feet, picking up patients and moving heavy equipment. She has come to the realization that she’s going to have to make a career change to start earning a living in her new home.

“Before Rubicon, I had been going to adult school to learn English, all while taking care of my grandson, she says. “Then, when I got here, I met with Ms. Celeste. She listened to me and connected me with my Career Advisor, Amabella.”

Marthe and Amabella soon went over her work history and strengths, and talked over her career options. Marthe wanted to continue helping people, but she had to find a workplace that could accommodate her back issues.

Together, they arrived at a solution: a new(ish) career in phlebotomy. As a phlebotomist, she could do similar work – drawing blood from patients – while staying off of her feet.

To become a phlebotomist though, she would need to learn the latest office technology, take phlebotomy classes and get certified.

“I don’t really have much experience with computers,” she adds. “So, I’ve been taking basic computer classes here every Thursday. I’m learning Outlook and Excel.”

All of these courses and certifications take time. In the meantime, she would still need to pay her bills.

Marthe and the Rubicon team decided to first focus on getting her into a more accessible job for the near future, as a caregiver, taking care of children with disabilities. Recently, she has begun applying for positions in this new field.

Amabella has helped her prepare her resume, and has taught her interview skills, as well as tips on how to ace a phone interview. They’ve done mock interviews and she has received one-one-one coaching sessions that have strengthened her soft skills and improved her confidence.

“Amabella makes me feel comfortable,” she says. “I can tell her anything. I can share anything.”

In other words, she meets her where she is.

“Since my first day, I have worried about my accent. But she assured me that it isn’t an issue. She’s an immigrant, too. She knows what I’m going through.”

Marthe is beyond grateful for all of this support.

“I feel more confident. I’m getting over the anxiety of it all.”

Amabella always says, “You’re going to win in that interview!” And it is that enthusiasm that keeps Marthe going as she tackles this sometimes daunting process.

“I’ve never taken care of children with disabilities,” she says. “But I’m eager to learn. And I’m optimistic for the future.”

Help Rubicon continue to break poverty by donating or explore the full participant journey here.

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The Reentry Success Center: Breaking Barriers to Break Poverty

By Jonathan Bash December 18, 2018

One in three Americans have interacted with the criminal justice system at some point in their lives. This one touchpoint can be life-changing, introducing dozens of new barriers that can follow an individual throughout their life, making it a challenge to get a job, rent a home or raise a child.

These barriers not only hold them back, but their children and the community, perpetuating intergenerational poverty. That’s where the Reentry Success Center (RSC) – a collaboration between Rubicon Programs and community partners – comes in.
 
The RSC is there for those reentering society after incarceration, as well as their families during – and after – their loved one is in prison or jail. While at the Center, staff, volunteers, community members and fellow returning residents work together to help people transition into a good job, put a deposit on an apartment, and reconnect with their friends and family.

“I was released from jail three weeks ago after a ten month sentence at West County,” says Michelle, a new member of the Reentry Success Center. “The Center was talked about a lot while there. I heard so many success stories, so I came here two days after my release.”

Michelle says she knew she needed a support network to get back on her feet. The Center sounded like the perfect fit.

“In jail, we don’t have to talk to each other. You are isolated. You push people away. But you have to work together to move forward in the community,” she says. “We come out uninformed about our rights. We don’t have the direction or structure to do what we need to yet.”

At the Center, she found the structure she was looking for; she soon signed-up for classes that have helped her move forward, including a Life Skills course, a Cognitive Skills class, and Trauma and Grief Therapy sessions. These opportunities have helped her acclimate to the workforce and manage some of the challenges in her personal life.

“My 9-year-old son tells me that I need to communicate better, so for now, I’m focusing on that. I’m also working to collect some of the skills that I need to thrive in my career.”

Another priority is learning how to navigate the job search process with a criminal record. “It’s hard to find a great job or get a career started,” she says. “There are many obstacles. Some employers look at me like a criminal. They put me in a box.”

Luckily, changes to California’s employment laws have made it a bit easier for her to have a fair chance. A.B. 1008, “Ban the Box” legislation signed in 2017 by Governor Jerry Brown, became law after a coalition of formerly incarcerated advocates came together to push for change.

Now, employers are no longer allowed to ask about an applicant’s criminal background until a conditional offer of employment is made, allowing people to show who they really are without preconceived notions and prejudices clouding an employer’s judgement.

“This allows people to sell themselves,” says Lawrence, the Reentry Center’s Volunteer Mentor Coordinator. The law has already helped some employers see the light.  “Now, there are many so-called ‘felon-friendly’ employers out there.”

Getting a job can still be a challenge, but those challenges are often overcome with hard work and dedication. “People have no job history and no references, so we try to take the skills they’ve learned on the street and apply them to today’s job market.”

Lawrence recruits and manages volunteers and mentors who help Center members build new careers – and lives. He’s seen many of his friends, family and colleagues go in and out of the system, and knows from experience what they have to do to succeed.

“It’s been documented that what happens in the first 72 hours after release has the greatest impact on whether an individual recidivates,” he says. “That timeframe is critical: You either go to a shelter, go home to your family, or you fall back in with the ‘homies’ who got you into jail in the first place.”

That’s why housing and community support go hand-in-hand during the reentry process.

“We’re fortunate to have a relationship with the probation department. They often bring newly-released individuals to the Center so they can get the resources they need and avoid their old ways.”

Richmond residents also benefit from a fair-chance policy that makes it more difficult for landlords to discriminate against potential tenants with a criminal record.  This increases access to housing, which in turn makes it easier to get and keep a job.

“When you first come home, you often stay at a shelter and get a temp job. But soon enough, you find out your shelter has residency cap – 30 days. How can potential employers contact you if you’re bouncing back-and-forth without a phone or mailing address?”

Having a stable home makes a world of difference. No one knows this better than Tommy, a participant who has completed the Center’s 8-week Alpha Program, a comprehensive curriculum that serves people who are at the highest risk of recidivating. “I’ve been living in shelters so that I can save my wages for a deposit, and now I’m in the process of looking for a permanent place to stay, a studio in Richmond,” he says.

Tommy says that the Alpha Program changed his life, helping make jobs and housing accessible. “I learned to reenter home life and work life. Then, I got a full-time job – just one month after Alpha.”

“It gave me a second chance at a first-class life,” he says.

After nearly a decade in incarceration, Tommy knew there had to be a better way. “Being told what to do, when to eat…letting someone take control of your life…it’s no way to live. I robbed myself of so many opportunities to advance and be happy. But now, I feel different. I look different. I talk different. I’m out of the unemployment line, and that feels great.”

“Everyone has struggles, but when you surround yourself with positivity, you can overcome those struggles,” he says. “I’m so grateful for the Center’s positive environment, all of these positive people, and all of this new information that has brought so many good things into my life.”

Tommy ties most of his success to the people he has kept around him. “I always had emotional support from my family,” he says. “But the Center had my back. They told me I don’t have to go into this alone, and they stayed by my side.”

 “When you get out of jail, it can feel like you are a newborn baby. You’re naked. You have nothing. But you don’t have to see it that way. It’s only temporary. And you don’t have to fall back on your old ways, or with old, negative people.” You have to make a conscious choice.

“I’m an Eagle. And Eagles can fly. There’s a reason Eagles don’t hang out with Turkeys. Turkeys can’t fly. You have to keep people around you that give you strength.”

In other words, he draws energy – and strength – from the Center.

“I’m going to keep coming here until it closes down. And I hope that day never comes.”

Help Rubicon break poverty by donating or explore the full participant journey here.

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Unlocking Anwar’s Assets, One Month at a Time

By Jonathan Bash December 5, 2018

I was at the end of my rope,” Anwar says with a pensive look in his eyes. “I was looking for jobs. I was even doing well in the interview process. But at the last stage, I just couldn’t get past the background check.”

This recurring roadblock posed a serious challenge to his well-being after an already bumpy couple of years. A workplace accident had triggered a depression that lingered.

“I couldn’t leave the house some days,” he says. “It started to affect my relationships.”

Feelings of worthlessness crept in. He knew he needed to shake that off and try something new. That’s when he made the decision to visit Rubicon Programs.

“I’m willing to do the hard work. I just need a little direction, a little boost. Rubicon assured me that things would come together.”

This gave him the confidence he needed to keep going.

“As soon as I left my first meeting, my Impact Coach, Eric, was texting me to remind me that he’s here to help me out whenever I need it. From there, everything just took off!”

Anwar spent the next few weeks in workshops covering core pathways to change: developing income, building assets, fostering wellness and forging connections. He soon got the boost he needed – advice on how to navigate the job search with a criminal record – and eventually secured a good job with growth potential in the hospitality industry.

“I’m now making the most money I have ever made in my life,” he says. This economic stability finally allowed him to focus on building financial assets and setting the groundwork for a better future.

​To actualize that vision, Anwar met with his Financial Coach, Ken. Together, they checked his credit report.

“I saw everything on my credit report that was bringing down my credit score. We identified things that were going to collections and set-up affordable monthly payments. Then, I applied for a credit card and started using it responsibly. My score then went from very bad to very good!”

Next, with a clean bill of fiscal health in hand, Anwar tackled his transportation challenges.

“My girlfriend and I shared a car that was just one breakdown away from leaving us without any way to get to work.”

What’s worse, Anwar had a backlog of unpaid tickets that snowballed when he couldn’t afford to pay his car registration on time. He had lost his license.

“Rubicon’s lawyers helped me go to court to wipe out all of my tickets – poof, gone! I got my driver’s license back.”

With his license in hand and stellar credit in his back pocket, Anwar worked side-by-side with Ken and Eric to secure a low interest, subsidized car loan. He was approved, and now has a brand new car that provides him with a reliable way to get to work and make a living.

Anwar’s life changed more than he could have imagined in just a few months’ time. But he was still looking toward the future. Using the skills he learned in Rubicon’s Money Management workshop, he created a savings plan and opened a savings account. Ever since, he has been putting away leftover funds at the end of the month.

“I want to buy a home someday. I’m spending a lot on rent. I’d rather pay that money back to myself than throw it away,” he says. “It motivates me to be responsible with my money each month, and save up the 20 percent needed for a down payment. It’s a pride thing – I know it will feel good to own something and I’m willing to work to get there.”

He’s also taking an elective workshop to learn more about finances. “Ken has gotten me interested in saving for retirement. I’d like to learn more about that – but first, I have to save up for a house!”

Anwar is optimistic he’s going to get there. He recently was promoted to be a certified trainer at his workplace, and hopes to continue to rise up the ranks. He’s also taking advantage of every resource Rubicon offers, earning his Hazmat, Occupational Safety and fork lift certifications and licenses.

“I can’t stress enough how grateful I am for Rubicon,” he says. “When I hit rock bottom, I didn’t need a handout. I needed a boost. Rubicon gave me exactly what I need to step out of my comfort zone and change my life.”

What else is next for Anwar?

“Once I buy a house, I’m going to start fostering elderly and disabled animals. I love animals. Absolutely love them.”

Help Rubicon break poverty by donating or explore the full participant journey here.

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‘Cooking Matters’ in the Food Desert

By Jonathan Bash June 19, 2018

Exzavier looks intently at a tall can of flavored Iced Tea, examining the nutrition facts label and other minute details. He puts it back down, opting not to open it.

“Heck no. That’s no good,” he declares. “75 grams of sugar? No way – I don’t want diabetes.” The rest of the class nods in agreement.

In lieu, they all proceed to make their own “spa waters” and “Fauxitos” with fresh mint, lime and sparkling spring water – all zero calories and half the price.

Soon after, one of the other course participants asks, “Wait…there’s no sugar in this? Are you sure?” The instructor, Alexis Gutierrez, responds, “I told you it was good!”

Just six weeks before, Exzavier and his fellow classmates hadn’t heard of spa water, let alone Fauxitos.

Many of them reported that soda is cheap and easy to access at the local liquor store, as is fast food. They also mentioned that food expenses are rising, exhausting their budgets. What’s worse, they were often feeling hungry and low-energy after eating a typical meal.

In response, Rubicon Programs, an East Bay-based nonprofit that works to end poverty, enrolled them in their new “Cooking Matters” class, an extensive course offered in conjunction with 18 Reasons, another organization that aims to help low-income communities make quick, healthy, affordable, delicious meals every day.

Kimi Barnes, Rubicon’s Health Resource Manager, made the initial connection.

“Our participants were tired of hearing ‘save money, set a budget,’ without concrete information on how to lower the cost of their largest expenditure on top of rent: food,” she says. “They also made it clear that their number one health goal has always been to eat better, so we thought, ‘why not create a cooking class that shows them how to accomplish all these goals?’”

Kimi soon bumped into the folks at 18 Reasons, who already had an entire curriculum and team ready to roll. She and their leadership were both on the same page, so the two organizations agreed to partner-up.

Clara Obstfeld, a coordinator of the course, began working with Kimi to offer the class to Rubicon participants.

“There are so many challenges for people in poverty trying to navigate the food system,” Clara says. “Misconceptions around labels, marketing terms, and what truly is healthy are so common, and time is a limited resource for many of them, making it hard to make informed choices – especially on a tight budget.”

The Cooking Matters course tackles all of these problems in two distinct ways: by teaching practical cooking and shopping skills, and tying those skills to all the information a consumer needs to cook a healthy, low-cost meal.

To maximize the course’s impact, they customize each course with direction from the class and the community – all the recipes are rooted in the students’ interests and cultural preferences. In fact, many of the educators and cooking instructors are from the neighborhood, and know what works.

“In a typical class, we spend the first half on a nutrition lesson – identifying whole grains and counting calories, for example,” Clara says. “Then we have a Chef’s lesson that puts those facts into action.” Participants learn to cook using toaster ovens and portable stoves, as well as develop sous-chef skills like proper knife technique and measurement skills.

The instructors also provide special assignments to the participants, including a “$10 Challenge” in which participants are asked to buy all the ingredients necessary for a balanced meal for the whole family, all while spending no more than $10. Some contestants prepare recipes from the class, like Fresh Veggie Quesadillas or Low-Fat Chicken Alfredo. Others invent creative new combinations with their newfound culinary instincts.

One participant, Luc, is a fan of seafood and was able to beat the challenge five-fold, making 5 delicious meals at $2 each: sautéed kale, honey-garlic roasted zucchini and smoked sardines – all made in a toaster oven or on a portable burner. He soon fell down the proverbial rabbit-hole, discovering his passion for cooking. After graduation, he continued his culinary education by transferring to The Bread Project, where he learned how to bake in a commercial setting, ultimately launching a new career in baking.

Meanwhile, other participants have improved their home lives in many ways thanks to the class.

Exzavier and his wife Doris, another participant, were both enrolled in the most recent workshop series offered by Rubicon Programs. Both are working with Rubicon to strengthen their careers, build a strong economic foundation, and improve their family’s health and wellness.

“We did the class together as a family – Kimi took care of my five-year-old son Sirod while we focused on cooking – and it was a great experience,” he says. “We reconnected and discovered a new activity for us to bond over. Now, each night, everyone is excited to eat together, even my older kids. We share more at the dinner table. We talk with each other more. We congregate more.”

“We also are able to do more with less. We buy healthier and always bargain shop.”

Kimi is proud of the work Rubicon and 18 Reasons has done with the course, but she also says that there is much more work to do changing the food system.

“It’s not all about education,” she says. “People aren’t stupid. The issue is access. The choices we all make are limited by the options we have. If the only options within walking distance of your home are a liquor store and a Drive-Thru, what choice do you really have?”

She says that more equitable urban planning, incentives for grocery stores to move into low-income neighborhoods, and increased access to community gardens, farmer’s markets and other avenues to fresh food will all hopefully move the needle.

But until then, she, Clara, and her team will continue to chip away at the problem one family at a time.

Luc ​kily, the strategy appears to be working.

​“This class changed my life,” Exzavier explains. “After our first meal, I actually felt full. I no longer felt tired. Honestly, I felt like I could go back to work at 8 o’clock at night. I have so much more energy now – when I wake up in the morning, I feel like I’m on fire!”

Your support can help Rubicon continue to bring courses like Cooking Matters to those in need.  Donate today.

 

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Growth through Service: Rubicon Men’s Group Treats Richmond’s Moms for Mother’s Day

By Jonathan Bash May 10, 2018

By Reggie Boyer, Impact Coach

Sometimes, you just need to get away from it all, decompress, and share your thoughts in a safe place. 

This simple fact of life inspired me to work with my participants at Rubicon Programs to create our first Men’s Support Group.

Men at Rubicon have gone through—and are still going through—a lot, whether that means dealing with personal challenges, launching a career or simply raising a family.

It’s tough to get through all of that without a support system to keep your spirits up. That’s why our participants have been so interested in what this group has to offer.

 

Fostering Brotherhood

"I joined the Men’s Group to get support from, and communicate with, men who are on my level,” says Theodore, a Group participant. “Since the first day, these men have helped me restore my self-confidence, as well as regain trust in my fellow man.”

Our Men’s Group provides that crucial social support, as well as a whole host of other opportunities for growth. Each Monday evening, nearly two dozen men convene at our Richmond Headquarters to enjoy a meal, talk about their problems and plan community service projects intended to give back.

“It’s a chance to let loose away from work, family, and our day-to-day responsibilities, and share your thoughts and feelings without being judged,” says Michael, another regular participant in the Group. “And it works. As a result, our group has grown even bigger than we ever expected.”

The weekly program has provided a shift in mindset for all of these men. They’re focused on growth and moving towards change, ready to take action to make the community a better place.

Over the holiday season, the men raised money and bought supplies to help the homeless. They gathered hundreds of articles of clothing, dozens of blankets and tons of food. Then they walked the streets of Richmond handing out care packages, as well as information on how to access services like Rubicon. 

That experience was life-changing for them. It brought a great deal of satisfaction and they wanted to continue to pay it forward.

 

Celebrating Motherhood

In honor of Mother’s Day, they decided to do something special for the moms of the community who aren’t always provided the opportunity to have a day just for themselves.

The Men’s Group settled on a Mother’s Day Brunch to express gratitude to the women who not only raised their own children, but also helped nurture many others’ children.

“What’s better than to support our women and give them a good time, with great food and great service,” Theodore says.

First, we organized a raffle, raising hundreds of dollars to support the event. Then, we reached out to the amazing Menbere Aklilu, owner of Salute e Vita Ristorante. She generously offered to support the project by providing us with first-class meals on the restaurant's beautiful waterfront veranda. 

​The men then bought fresh cut flowers for each of the mothers, dressed up in their fanciest outfits, and donned Men’s Group-branded aprons to provide each of the thirty deserving mothers with impeccable service and a delicious meal of fresh salad, Chicken Marsala, roasted vegetables and a decadent dessert.

“The food was delicious,” says Yolanda, one of the lucky moms. “Each of the men were so sweet, serving us with a smile. I am so proud of them for organizing such a beautiful event, and for providing all of us with food we may never had a chance to taste!”

 

Bringing Love into Our Community

At the end of the meal, Menbere shared her amazing story with all the mothers, and the men by their side.

“I’m one of you. I know how it feels to be lonely, or homeless, or a single mother,” she said. “I, ​once a little girl from Ethiopia, where I walked barefoot and played only with the dirt and the dust, who then came to America, lived on welfare, and gradually rose up, was able to earn my American Dream.”

She continued to speak, nearly bringing each of the moms—and men—to tears.

“Now, even though many people said I couldn’t do it, I own this restaurant. And I get to give back to my community. And gather with my community. And walk side-by-side with my community.”

​“Never forget that you’re worthy. Never forget that you are loved.”

And, that message, at its core, is the message of the Men’s group: love. It’s a space that allows men to love themselves, appreciate each other and grow together. It provides an essential service that’s hard for them to find anywhere else.

Together, we have formed a brotherhood. We’ve become family. And we welcome newcomers with open arms.

Reggie Boyer is an Impact Coach at Rubicon Programs, and the founding organizer of the Rubicon Men’s Support Group. 

 

Click here to support the Men’s Group with a generous donation.

 

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