01/23/2013 09:25 am ET Updated Mar 25, 2013

'These Are My Best Interview Slippers!'

By Jennifer Mitchell

Joseph walked into HOPE's offices bustling with nervous energy. He had recently completed our eight-week GROCERYworks training course, and he was preparing to go on his first interview in many years. He was dressed to impress in the fitted suit that he had selected from HOPE's clothing closet. Everything was perfect... from head to ankle.

As I was talking to Joseph, I looked down and noticed that his feet were donned with slippers -- navy blue bedroom slippers, embroidered with a gold fleur de lis.

At the time, Joseph was living in a homeless shelter, after recently being released from prison. He had overcome years of addiction to get to this point. At HOPE, he worked with our warm staff, mastered new computer skills, learned how to use workplace math, practiced customer service and conflict resolution and he was in the midst of studying for his GED. But, if he walked to his interview in bedroom slippers, it would all be for naught.

The success of HOPE's work is based on finding the right balance between building the skills and confidence of the individuals we serve -- men and women who have often been turned away and failed by other programs -- and providing constructive feedback to empower them to become the best and most successful versions of themselves. This moment called for nothing but direct and honest feedback -- and quickly. I pulled Joseph aside to tell him how great he looked and how confident we were in his ability to achieve this job at a high-end grocer. Then I gently told him to visit our clothing closet for a pair of shoes in his size because the ones he was wearing were not appropriate. Thankfully, Joseph was open to the feedback and found shoes that fit. Although he wasn't selected for that job, it wasn't long before Joseph was employed.

This story is not unique. It happens time and again at HOPE. I've literally had male staff take off their own belts or ties to lend to a HOPE jobseeker in need. Female staff members dig into their bags to find nail polish remover to remove fluorescent green nail polish in a jiffy. Our Finance Director once pulled a sewing kit from her desk to mend a tear before a woman headed out to an interview.

From learning more effective work habits (time management, conflict resolution) to preparing a resume and elevator pitch to get their foot in the door; from help with budgeting to ongoing lifetime services to build a career, HOPE provides feedback and support through it all. Our compassionate learning environment demonstrates in every way our belief in each individual's potential to overcome significant challenges and rebuild their lives.

As executive director of The HOPE Program, I am in the fortunate position to bear witness to the amazing transformation that occurs when someone is given the tools and the amazing opportunity to work, to become self-sufficient and to contribute to their family and to society.

Yet, there is still so much work to be done. New York City's poverty rate is its highest in over a decade. In fact, 1.7 million New Yorkers live under the poverty level and a full 750,000 live at half the rate. The New York Times reported in September that Manhattan's income gap now rivals that of sub-Saharan Africa. According to the most recent data pulled from the state's Department of Labor, the NYC unemployment rate held at 8.8 percent in December 2012, still a full percentage point higher than the national rate. For the students at HOPE, the chances of securing employment are even more dire. Men and women with no GED, histories of incarceration and other employment barriers face unemployment rates of up to 40 percent. These are the statistics that keep me and the rest of the HOPE staff up at night strategizing how to ensure our students success.

And we do. HOPE graduates outperform their peers and achieve jobs and promotions that they had once thought were unattainable. In fact, HOPE is on track to achieve its third consecutive year of growth in job placement for individuals who would otherwise be shut out of the job market. And, our graduates' job retention rates are among the top in the industry.

Over the next couple of months, you will read perspectives from so many in HOPE's community -- our students, teachers, volunteers, the employers who hire our graduates and many others. We'll share pictures of bell-ringing (you'll have to come back to learn what that means) and tell you more about our success rates. We will ask you to join us in supporting our students through their struggles and share in celebrating their successes.

Right now, I ask that you share our blog with anyone who has an interest in interview slippers and fighting poverty through employment. And I ask that you visit our Crowdrise page to see photos and video of our work and be one of the first to support us in this Jobraising Challenge. Thank you and stay HOPEful!