Monday, August 10, 2009

Changing Lives Through Jobs

My internship this summer is at Chrysalis, a nonprofit devoted to helping homeless and economically disadvantaged individuals transition back into the work force. In these times of economic hardship, when it can be difficult for just about anyone to find a job, Chrysalis provides resources and opportunities for the people facing the biggest challenges in obtaining stable employment. As their CEO states, Chrysalis provides people with “a hand up, not a hand out.” The Chrysalis Program includes interview classes, computer skills training, and access to job postings. Each client meets regularly with an Employment Specialist who tracks their progress.

For the clients who have the most difficulty finding employment, for reasons such as homelessness or felony convictions, there is Chrysalis Enterprises, which serves to provide these clients with work experience they can translate into future career opportunities. Chrysalis Enterprises is comprised of Chrysalis Staffing, essentially an employment agency, and Chrysalis Works, a street cleaning and maintenance service that employs Chrysalis clients. The genius of Chrysalis Enterprises is that, in addition to accomplishing the organization’s mission by providing employment opportunities for those in need, these endeavors earn money for Chrysalis, allowing the non-profit to be self-sustaining to a certain extent.

My internship is in the Chrysalis Enterprises office, located in downtown Los Angeles in the “Skid Row” district. Each morning when I arrive, there is a crowd of people on the sidewalk who have just signed in at the front desk in the hopes of getting work that day. Another great thing about the organization’s strategy is that all the clients and potential clients are there because they want to work hard and turn their lives around; no one is there against his or her will.

When I began the internship, I did as much as I could to understand the workings of the organization. I attended orientations for new Chrysalis clients (I even teared up a bit during a particularly moving orientation video) and clients who had been referred to Chrysalis Enterprises, and sat in on many client interviews. When I was introduced to one new client as “David the Intern,” the client carefully looked me up and down, and then said, “Are you really a doctor?”

Additionally, I had the opportunity to spend a morning with one of the street cleaning crews where I was driven around and shown the areas they cover. Coincidentally, it was the “Figueroa Corridor” area, i.e. the area right around USC, where I spend my time the rest of the year. It was interesting to see the area from a different perspective, and to see how all the sidewalks, alleys, and landscaping are maintained; I had never noticed the Chrysalis crews before, but now I see them every time I drive by campus. The crew members take a great amount of pride in their work and were eager to show me the stark contrast between the areas they maintain and the areas that are not covered under their contract.

I also visited the other two Chrysalis locations: one in Santa Monica and one in Pacoima. While at the Pacoima office, I sat in on interviews with clients for a part-time job collecting recyclables at a nearby university. It was heartbreaking to see how each and every one of those clients just wanted to work and was willing to pick up hours wherever they could; I was rooting for each and every one of them to get the position.

Most of the work I have done thus far involves Chrysalis Works; my first major project was to tackle the problem of the record-keeping and customer reporting system. The system in place was that supervisors of the street-cleaning crews would write down the data each day (e.g. how many trash bags were picked up, where graffiti was removed, any bulk items that were picked up, etc.), and one of two people would enter the data on an Excel spreadsheet. At the end of the month, the data would be copied onto one of a variety of report templates and sent to the customer.

My assignment was to fix this system using FileMaker Pro, which I had used years ago when I worked at the Shoah Foundation. I took a few weeks to build a system into which the data could be entered in a standardized format in a location that all employees could access. I had to create a screen where all the necessary data could be entered in a way that it could be pulled onto a singular report for the customer. The next step was to create the report templates within FileMaker, so that once that data was in the system, creating the report for the customer was as easy as selecting the report from a drop-down menu.

We tested this system using the data from June, and sent FileMaker-generated reports to all of Chrysalis Works’ customers, who responded positively to the new format.

Another project I worked on was the thorough analysis of client data. Most of the data on individual clients is collected in the payroll system, but unfortunately, there is not one cohesive report that displays information on things such as average hours worked, number of months employed, hours worked per employee per year, etc. Information such as this is extremely important for judging the efficacy of the program and determining where improvement is needed.

We determined that the vast majority of Chrysalis Works clients work either fewer than 10 hours a week, or more than 30 hours a week; very few people fall in between those categories. Additionally, we discovered that, during the time period we examined, the clients who work the most hours are usually the ones who have been there the longest; there is extremely high turnover among the clients working few hours. The next step is to determine a way to track clients, so that we know what happens to them when they leave the Chrysalis program (e.g. Did they find outside employment? Are they back on the streets?, etc.)

I also had a chance to put my development skills to use, running a training session for the development department on the software The Raiser’s Edge. I had the opportunity to show them a lot of the features I’d used at a prior job, The Guardians of the Jewish Home for the Aging.

As the internship continues, I look forward to learning more about and contributing more to this organization.

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