St. Joseph’s program helps create stability

Jeff Fishback helps Erika Jimenez with paperwork at St. Joseph's

– Erika Jimenez came to South County last year without much more
than her two children and the conviction that life could be better
here than it was in San Antonio.
But with few job skills and even less English, Jimenez didn’t
have many options.
Gilroy – Erika Jimenez came to South County last year without much more than her two children and the conviction that life could be better here than it was in San Antonio.

But with few job skills and even less English, Jimenez didn’t have many options. She ended up in the Ochoa Winter Camp, which turned out to be her lucky break. Through the camp, she learned about St. Joseph’s Family Center, and met Jeff Fishback.

“I felt very depressed because of the stresses of being a single mother without work,” Jimenez said recently through an interpreter. “Jeff gave me moral support. He pointed to my strengths and abilities. He gave me the moral support that I could find work and encouraged me to go to school.”

Fishback is also new to Gilroy. He moved to town last October to run St. Joseph’s nascent jobs training program, an ambitious addition to the center’s traditional mix of emergency and transitional services, and the only one in town that caters solely to low-skilled workers.

St. Joseph’s Executive Director David Cox took on the challenge last summer when the social services provider Familias Pueden lost its funding and folded. He said Monday that he’s thrilled with its early returns – at least 36 of the first 45 participants have improved their employment situations – but the program has already forced Cox to scramble for funding. In its first year, about half of the $65,000 it takes to fund the program came from the city of Gilroy, but the city’s own budget difficulties mean it will only provide about $10,000 in the next fiscal year that begins July 1.

“We’re very excited about having the program. It’s been extremely successful. It has exceeded even our expectations. Jeff has been passionate and patient and earned the respect of the community,” Cox said. “We were a little nervous, and we’re still nervous about taking on the program. Sustained funding was going to be a challenge and this is going to make it even more difficult. We’re going to have to work our tails off to be successful.”

The job program at St. Joseph’s is like many other programs in that it has a job board, offers résumé services and helps secure spots in job training classes. Fishback said that its distinguishing mark is the flexibility it has in providing almost any service a client needs.

“David has really given me a great deal of autonomy and let the program develop organically,” Fishback said. “I can respond to the specific needs I’m learning about in the community. I hope the funding sources we’ll go after will not limit our ability to customize our program. Sometimes funding sources put a lot of limits on who you can service. I hope we can stay away from rigidity that boxes us into a one-size-fits-all response.”

Most of the clients Fishback deals with are looking for standard assistance. Jimenez is now in a 14-week training program with Career Advancement Solutions in Gilroy. The program is expensive, but St. Joseph’s is helping underwrite her training. CAS is going to give Jimenez some scholarship money and will help her find a well-paying job with benefits when she completes the program.

But In one instance, Fishback is helping a woman with epilepsy develop a medical history that will give her job protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Most job programs don’t apportion funds for the trips to the doctor.

And in addition to helping Gilroy resident Edward Garcia find groundskeeping work at Gavilan College, Fishback is assisting him in starting his own tattoo parlor.

“Jeff is a really good guy,” Garcia said. “He’s really good as far as listening and helping people find jobs. When you go to the unemployment office they don’t really help you, but Jeff has helped a lot of people since I’ve known him. He’s someone I can call a friend who’s willing to help me. I’ve never met anybody like him.”

Fishback, 41, came to Gilroy from a diverse background. A native of Omaha, Neb., he spent six years working for social services agencies on the California-Mexico border, and three years working for Fair Housing of Marin. About seven years ago, he returned to Omaha to work in technology.

“I was eager to get back to California,” Fishback said. “I was already enamored with this area and I love Gilroy. We’re fortunate to be so well connected and promoted. There are so many good services to help people in this community, none of which were very accessible or easy to find in Omaha.”

The program is aimed at low-income residents of Gilroy and San Martin who are unemployed or working at jobs that don’t pay them enough to live or provide benefits.

“A lot of clients come to me and have work, but it’s not enough to take care of a family,” Fishback said. “Most of my clients come to me with some pretty steep employment barriers.”

For many qualified people like Jimenez, language is the biggest obstacle to gainful employment, but many of Fishback’s clients lack transportation, work experience and education. Some have criminal backgrounds. Many of them just don’t know the basics about finding work, so Fishback spends a lot of one-on-one time with clients writing resumes and cover letters, drilling them on interview etiquette and formulating job-search action plans and long-term employment goals.

The funding flexibility allows Fishback to get almost anything a client needs, whether it’s the right shade and stock of résumé paper or books and supplies for a nursing program at Gavilan.

“We’ll spend as much as $400 or $500 if we identify a specific need to help someone secure better employment,” he said.

Fishback also works with the business community, to make sure employers know about the pool of candidates and to ensure that he’s providing proper training.

Steven Sharrer, vice president of human resources at Saint Louise Regional Hospital has begun what will be a regular series of classes aimed at teaching clients how to sell themselves to employers.

“Many people are very talented but don’t know how to present themselves,” Sharrer said of his instruction. “If they’re fortunate enough to get called in for an interview, they need to know how to make an employer believe they’re the person for the job.

“Not only does participating in the program fall in line with the hospital’s mission and values, but long-term, maybe one of these folks who takes a class or does something through Jeff can find a job at Saint Louise.”

The downside of the considerable amount of personal time that Fishback gives each client means that he has to turn some people away. It’s just not possible for him to work with more than 30 clients at any one time, and turnover is low because his relationships last for months.

“With the kind of intensive services I’m trying to offer, that’s about the maximum,” he said. “I hit a point where I feel like I’m cheating other clients, and I have to be in the unfortunate position of telling people I can’t help them. Demand outweighs our resources.”

But Fishback does still help. The job board that lists employment opportunities in health, education, social services and office jobs is open to anyone, as are computer and Internet service for job hunting. And Fishback will gladly fax a resume for anyone who walks in the door. After all, that’s why he’s here.

“My greatest success,” he said, “Is when somebody comes to me who doesn’t have a job, finds a job they think is better and allows them to take care of their families.”

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