Wilbert Jordan (center) was homeless for two years before getting a job through The Cara Program. Because of the economy, he is now jobless again and starts his morning with the "Motivations" sessions at The Cara Program. Photo by Joe Gallo.

“Motivate me,” the group chanted in unison each time someone shared their story.

As the rest of Chicago was waking up, around 50 students, staff and guests of The Cara Program began their daily “Motivations.” Today’s topic was to discuss who they admired and what that person has taught them.

The Cara Program, located at 703 W. Monroe St., offers comprehensive training and support services to help poor or homeless people get jobs as a way out of poverty. Despite a tumbling stock market and rising unemployment, the goal of the Motivations meetings are to energize the program’s students to accomplish their goals of having stable jobs and incomes.

On this particular day, JaShawn Hill talked about her admiration for soon-to-be first lady Michelle Obama, a native of Chicago’s South Side. “If she can get to go to the White House, I might get to go to the White House,” Hill said before leading the group in song, “I Don’t Know What You Came To Do,” she sang, “I came to change my life.”

While many Americans are battling the effects of the recession, The Cara Program is trying to address how job cuts are affecting people who have overcome homelessness, addiction or poverty and are trying to rebuild their lives. Julie Hasel, the program’s manager of resource development, said students are returning to the program for supportive services after having been laid off when their employer downsized. Wilbert Jordan, 45, is one of them.

During a recent Motivations session, Jordan, dressed in a suit and tie, sang and clapped from the front row. He was homeless for two years before he came to The Cara Program in January 2008. He completed the first 4-week phase and then began searching for a job. In March, he was hired by Northwestern University Hospital in the environmental services/housekeeping department. After five months, he was laid off because the company was downsizing. He’s back at The Cara Program trying to find another job.

The Chicago Reporter sat down with Jordan to talk about the program, getting a job he enjoyed and what his life has been like since that job disappeared.

What were your first impressions of Cara?

I thought it was going to be a schooling type of a program. I really didn’t want that –¦ but when I first came to phase one for transformations, it was something I walked into eyes open, mind open, ready and eager to learn. I came in with an open mind.

What was the most difficult part of the program?

My hardest [part] was when I came to phase two. I didn’t know how to interview well. I got that technique down real good now because I’ve been doing a lot of mock interviews on-site and offsite. I’ve been really having my community members that are on my team think outside the box. My community, we always really drill each other on certain things in The Cara Program [like] –˜What’s happening? How’s your job search? How many walk-ins did you do?’ We drill each other on all that.

How important is community in the program?

The community is a really big, important part of Cara. If you can get along with your community, most likely you can get along with just about anyone. To me, speaking for myself, I have a positive outlook on most things. Instead of looking at the negative, I always try to find something in the negative and bring it to the positive.

What was the most rewarding part?

When I was talking to [Manager Ginger Jo Francis] one day and I found out I had a job at Northwestern. That was the most rewarding for me.

What was your reaction?

Actually, I was kind of scared because Northwestern is a hospital, and I’d never worked in a hospital setting. I didn’t know how I was going to fit in. But at Cara they came back and told me. She said, –˜If you stayed at this job right here that you had for nine years, you can do this job. Put in [the] same enthusiasm that you had here.’

Were you able to direct that enthusiasm?

When I was employed at Northwestern, I had a challenge at first because when you [are] new, you [try] to put your best foot forward and you’re kind of the new kid on the block. You gotta show up and show out, and that’s what I did at Northwestern.

What did you think of your job?

Actually, it was the first job that I really had that was really in environment housekeeping because the job that I had before that was a restaurant. But I was basically doing the same thing. [In] this job I was dealing with biohazardous waste, waste materials. They gave us specific things we had to do on the job. Like when they’d page us, we’d have to go run beds to certain areas. Little minor tasks around the hospital besides our own general tasks. I loved it.

How did you react when you were laid off?

They were downsizing, from what I heard, to build up the Children’s Hospital. First, they gave us a warning and said so many people are getting laid off. They didn’t know how many, but I knew that I was one of the last ones hired so I knew, basically, that I was going to be the one to go. When they called me into the office, I wasn’t too much surprised. [My boss and I] were going through the whole thing, and she was putting the layoff on the table and she was giving me my benefit pack. She said, –˜You are the only one that came in here with a positive attitude. You weren’t crying or being upset. You didn’t walk out.’ Like I said, I look at everything in a positive way; I have to, for me. She said, –˜If there’s going to be another hiring we really want you back.’ She said that, and my supervisor said that.

What have you been doing since then?

I’ve been doing job search. I’ve been very diligent in my job search. I submitted my resume at St. Joseph Hospital and an application online. I’m staying in contact with one of the [corporate account managers] here that’s really worked with me with St. Joseph’s. I had a mock interview with one of the ladies, and her apartment building was looking for someone. I called the business number to the building. I submitted my resume, and she said call her back on Friday. I called her on that Friday. She said she was in a board meeting, and I didn’t want to disturb the board meeting so I called her back another day, the following Monday. She was still busy. I didn’t want to keep calling. I didn’t want to seem kind of pushy, so I’m waiting to do a walk-in now.

What do you think of the economy?

I’ve been looking at the news, and all these big corporations are downsizing. I know a lot of people are going to be out of work so people are trying to grab jobs as they can get them. You know, maybe anything. Matter of fact, I was on my way to The Cara Program today, and my pastor stopped me and he was telling me about a part-time job. It’s for a theater. They need someone to clean the theater at night.

How has the economy affected you?

My job search. I’m down in the computer room trying to find different Web sites for places that need environmental services, housekeeping. They say, –˜We’re not hiring. We have nothing in your position at this point.’ It gets kind of frustrating. It’s getting really frustrating, but we have our staff [at The Cara Program], a very professional staff. They keep giving us more tools to use, more Web sites to go on so we can apply and updating our resumes.

What are your goals right now?

To land a job and keep a job. To move forward with my life.

What would your dream job be? The same thing. I’ve been doing environmental services for the last 10 years and I’ve been growing in it so much from Northwestern. I was on my way to getting more training at Northwestern, but the layoff happened, and they had to stop it. But while here at The Cara Program, they offered me ABM Lakeside [a general custodian service] training. I’ve taken that and put that on my resume, as well.

What’s your advice to others?

We all know it’s frustrating with the economy and everything. To me, just keep doing what you’re doing and something’s going to come out of it. Whether it’s your job search, your walk-ins. Just be persistent at it.

Laura Burns

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