02/21/2013 11:18 am ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

Why HOPE Is So Important -- Cynthia Maloney

I've volunteered at the HOPE Program for years, first as a mentor, then as a tutor, and more recently with the Wednesday morning Job Club. In Job Club, HOPE students start to put into practice everything they have learned in the HOPE job readiness program, their internships, their computer classes, and their lives in order to GET A JOB.

Imagine for one moment that you have not had a job in years, except while you were in prison, helping a family member with construction, or taking care of your sister's children. Imagine that you have never had an interview for years or not for many years. Think about the changes that you have observed in the world of work just in the last four years: companies have downsized or gone out of business, many of the back-office jobs have either gone overseas or require excellent communication skills -- both writing and speaking. And everything is now done via the computer, including filling out 20-page questionnaires in the application for many entry-level jobs.

The students I work with are adults, many with families to support. Their housing situation can be precarious, and some live in shelters. Those without a high school diploma have few work options and many take GED classes at HOPE. The GED certificate will help widen the door to the world of work. While some students have had extensive work experience, in today's work place their education or age or skill at the computer is a hard-to-overcome barrier.

That's why bringing HOPE into our students' lives is so important. HOPE is all about giving them more confidence, encouraging them to move forward from whatever life stage or skill level is theirs.

By the time students reach the Job Club stage of their search, they have been participating in the program for 8 to 12 weeks, depending on the program they are in. They've put together their work history, found the names and numbers of supervisors that some of them only remember as Sam or Grace from years ago, and pieced together their work timeline in order to create an accurate résumé. Students have also worked with the HOPE staff to decide what kinds of jobs best suit their skills and work history. After writing templates for basic cover and thank-you letters, learning to explain any gaps in their work histories or the how to discuss their time in jail, participating in mock interviews in- and outside of HOPE classes, it's time to FIND A JOB.

One of my favorite tasks in Job Club is giving mock interviews. I can help a person who has a problem with eye contact and the young woman, with a sparkly smile and experience in the food industry, who needs only to be reminded where to put her hands during the interview. Others need help figuring out how to talk about some of the issues that are apparent in their resumes. It is gratifying to work with students whose desire to learn is palpable and who usually only need to be channeled in the right direction.

For some time, June has been my number one project. She was a student at HOPE seven years ago. With an 8th grade education from Guyana, she was in her early 50s when I started tutoring her for the GED a few years ago. Quiet and slender, June had worked for eight years as a data entry clerk until her data processing area was automated. She came to HOPE for help in finding another job. After attending the program, she found work as an accounting assistant until that company went out of business two years later. June then returned to HOPE to attend GED classes and has taken the exam several times.

Besides lacking a high school diploma, June is hard of hearing -- but an excellent lip reader -- and has a severe speech impediment. The sounds S, Z, and TH just don't work very well. Somehow none of these things seem to faze her. A religious woman, she takes all these potential stumbling blocks in stride and prides herself in working hard and doing whatever it takes to get ahead.

After we started working together once a week, she did pass all the subjects, but still needs 100 points more (about 15 more questions answered correctly) to get the long-desired GED certificate. Tantalizingly close, she found out how to take the required training to become a home health aide, which she did and passed. For the last two years she has taken trains, buses, and walked, usually all three, to and from jobs all over Brooklyn. She took her first week of vacation this past Thanksgiving.

The problem with the agency June deals with is that in order to qualify for health care, she needs to work 40 hours in a week. The agency never assigns her enough jobs to get more than 20 to 28 hours, despite working weekends. In order to advance in any other area of the health care field, she must have the GED certificate. To obtain it, she has to have some time and energy to study. If she has a 4-hour assignment on a particular day, it often means one to two hours of travel time both going and coming home and additional time regular trips to and from the agency in Manhattan.

She has been sent to clients who have told her she can't come in upon arrival and to others who are not even home. She works in homes where other aides have done nothing on their previous shifts and left the clients in a mess. Often there are family members present who want June to take care of them, too. In her work as an aide, June has learned to stand up for herself and to make the best of many difficult situations.

Most weeks when I work with June, she arrives exhausted, but willing to study topics such as latitude and longitude, recall the difference between the Gadsden Purchase and the Louisiana Purchase, or decide on the content of Mr. Osborne's character in the GED prep book excerpt from Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Will she do these things fast enough on the next exam? Will she notice the negative in a question? Will she understand all those other test-question tricks that exist to trip her up in the time allotted? We'll know in a few weeks.

I am in awe of June's resilience, her work ethic, and her faith. Despite the many barriers standing in her path, I know she will get her GED and figure out how to move up in the health care field. And HOPE will always be there for her, as it is for all their students, as often as she needs help.