Commentary: A gift that keeps giving

By Jennifer Lara

Sometimes, the greatest gifts arrive in the most unexpected ways. Recently, I received a message from a former participant of Waubonsee Works, a program funded through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). The news brought more joy than the most expensive present. “I got the job,” the email exclaimed. While it is exciting news to hear someone received a new position, this email was particularly exciting, as I knew this job would change his life, his family members’ lives, and so many others.

Waubonsee Works is designed to help participants transition from where they are, to self-sufficiency with a high-wage, high-demand job. As the Waubonsee Works program manager, I strive to help students reach that level of success each year. Achieving career goals can feel out of reach, especially for young adults and youth who lack basic skills and face barriers to their employment such as poverty, a disability, justice system involvement or those who have dependents.

However, this is where the Waubonsee Works Program and WIOA come into play to provide wrap-around services to support these individuals. WIOA-funded programs build bridges to success through funding, training, employer partnerships, and personalized case management. Program participants work with a case advisor to plan their own unique path to success. If the student lacks the skills needed to obtain a high-wage job, WIOA funds can pay for Occupational Training or a Paid Work Experience in industry that will allow them to get those skills and get to work. In addition to these services, WIOA funding provides broad financial support for participants, including tuition and books, transportation costs to get to class or a job site, childcare expenses, utilities, uniforms and tools, and even legal fees. Whatever services a participant needs to help them stay engaged and employed, WIOA has a way.

For the participant who emailed me, WIOA funding helped him complete his Associate of Applied Science in Welding and provided meaningful paid work experiences that led to him obtaining full-time employment in his desired industry. While that could have been the successful end to his story, it wasn’t.

Before he exited the Waubonsee Works Program, we discussed a road map that would allow him to pursue his passion for teaching. After working for some time in his field, he used his industry hours and paid work experience hours to obtain a Career and Technical Educator license. He applied and was hired as a welding instructor at Indian Valley Vocational Center (IVVC) in Sandwich. Recently, an adjunct welding position opened at Waubonsee, and I sent him the job posting. He applied and that is when I received the amazing email. He will start working at Waubonsee in the spring of 2024 while continuing his full-time role at IVVC.

That is the gift that WIOA gives. This funding opens doors that would otherwise forever remain closed. This funding changes lives and helps put participants on a path to success that continues long after they exit the program, and often, like with my participant, their successes will continue to touch and inspire others in unexpected ways.

This article originally appeared here.

Jennifer Lara

is the program manager for Waubonsee Works at Waubonsee Community College in Illinois.