Lifting Customers UP

Poverty in the United States is a crisis that has increasingly gained attention in the media and government. More than 38 million people in our country cannot afford basic necessities including food, healthcare, housing, and transportation. What is worse, the poverty rate for people with disabilities is an alarming 25.7%.

The National Council on Disability reported that people with disabilities live in poverty at more than twice the rate than people without disabilities. Although people with disabilities make up approximately 12 percent of the U.S. working-age population, they account for more than half of people living in long-term poverty. At this rate, people with disabilities are far more likely to experience hardships that affect their overall livelihood.

Across the country, organizations have banned together to address the poverty crisis in their communities. One such organization in Orlando is United Against Poverty (UAP) whose mission is to serve those in poverty by providing crisis care, case management, transformative education, food, and household subsidy, employment training and placement, personal empowerment training and active referrals to other collaborative social service providers. Their mission, as Orlando Program Director Carla Cox puts it, is “a beautifully written jumbled phrase that is a lot heavier than people realize.” It is quite the feat to take on such a deeply rooted societal problem, and so UAP partners with local organizations who will work hand-in-hand to achieve their goal – organizations like employU.

The partnership between our two organizations has organically grown, stemming from the intersection of employment and poverty. To lift people out of poverty is in part to help them achieve financial independence through viable, lasting employment. Naturally, employU gravitated to a community organization firmly cemented in achieving this goal.

Over the past few years, employU has placed youth and adults in the UAP’s TeamUP 360 volunteer program in both the Orlando and Ft. Pierce locations, where clients were able to gain hands-on experience in customer service and marketplace maintenance. UAP’s Member Share Grocery Program is a food subsidy model giving families access to food, hygiene, and household items so they do not have to choose between quality food and paying other essential bills. During these on-the-job trainings, our clients kept shelves stocked, cleaned, and organized for UAP member families. “We serve 500 families per day on campus, mostly through our grocery program, but without our volunteers and on-the-job training team members, families who depend on us would not have access to nutritious food that they get to select in a dignifying environment” Carla explains.

In addition to on-the-job training opportunities for our clients, employU Employment Specialists participate in UAP’s Success Training Employment Program (STEP), an employment and education training for people with high barriers in those areas. Through the 120-hour course, participants emerge with the skills they require to obtain and maintain a job, setting them off on a path out of poverty. Our Employment Specialists assist in the course by conducting mock interviews for participants to practice for real-world situations. They encourage participants with feedback to fine-tune their interviewing skills so they can make the best impression on hiring managers.

The chronically unemployed are also served through the STEP program. Carla mentions that it is sometimes the case that individuals are at the onset stages of a disability but have simply not yet linked that to a lack of success in employment. As she puts it, “We help them identify that going through a process like Vocational Rehabilitation, they will gain access to services like vocational evaluations and job coaching which will help them attain their career goals. Often times, people with disabilities have a harder time getting out of poverty because they are written off as if they have no marketable skills, but there is so much more below the surface than what they are cast off as. Employers mistakenly judge them based on their first encounter, but they forget that they offer a lot more than that. Giving them the tools and resources that they need to succeed is incredibly important.”

This year alone, 56 people have graduated from the education component of the STEP program. Of these graduates, 38 increased their income above 100% of the poverty guideline, with 60% increasing their income above 200% of the poverty guideline.

employU and UAP’s partnership is an effortless match. Together we are stronger in serving our missions to lift people out of poverty and to strengthen our workforce through diversity. “Our partnerships, like the one we have with employU, inspire and empower people,” Carla stated, and she could not be any closer to the truth.