Sometimes you have to start at square one and work your way up.

That’s what Leah Comfort is learning as a student enrolled in the Employment Readiness Program, a program operated by Klamath Works, in conjunction with the Department of Human Services.

Comfort, a 28-year-old single mother of three boys, experienced postpartum depression after her second child was born, causing her to stop taking community college courses. She’s been out of work since February, but as part of the new Klamath Works life skills program, Comfort plans to graduate from it with a certificate of completion in January, and the skills to eventually finding a job as a preschool aide.

“It gives us something to do instead of just searching for a job on our own,” Comfort said. “It gives us more help and you, know, encouragement.”

A life-skills plan

Although not part of the original class of students, which started Oct. 3 and graduated on Dec. 2, Comfort is an example of the kind of results Klamath Works is hoping to see in the lives of those who enroll in the first-time program; the goal of which is to help create a path to self-sufficiency for those on or eligible for public assistance, and to create a broader pool of qualified employees for the local job market.

Klamath Works was awarded the contract to operate the program as an innovative response to a request for proposals by the State of Oregon to provide those receiving or eligible for assistance through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) the means to develop a self-sufficent pathway. The program operates inside the Sky Lakes Community Health building on the site of the Klamath Works Human Services Campus, an 18-acre site that will eventually host other social service organizations.

Participants keep a detailed binder of their activities and curriculum, volunteer at various local entities, and are required to write a resume at the completion of the program. They also receive assistance in job placement, and may qualify for a subsidy to their employer for a portion of their salary under the Job Plus Program.

“It’s life skill focused,” said Bryan Irwin, executive director of Klamath Works. “You have to have a solid platform at home in order to be able to get to work regularly.”

Planning, looking forward

The program, overseen by Irwin and a team of job coaches, teaches skills ranging from parenting and time management to organization, communication, and resume-building. Participants are largely referred by DHS. New groups of students start the program every two weeks.

In the mornings, job coaches work with participants and their team, assigning each a project, Irwin said.

“Keeping them rolling forward and improving the things that they need to be employable,” Irwin said.

“It starts to build the regimen of planning and looking forward, and paying your bills and taking care of the laundry, taking care of the kids. All those pieces start to fall into place with the regimen.”

Out of the first 10 students to enroll in the program in October, eight are off of public assistance. Four students from the initial class completed the entire program, and two found employment before the end of the program, with two other participants unable to finish the program due to other factors.

“We wanted to have 100 percent job placement, however we’re pretty proud of the numbers that we reached,” Irwin said.

Building up a workforce

Irwin led H&N staffers through the Klamath Works campus on South Sixth Street, showcasing a study lounge, kitchen, group areas, and more.

During the tour, Irwin greeted Job Coach Dewey Taylor II and Comfort, who were cleaning out lockers donated to the program by Klamath Union High School, surrounded by cubicles which have parts contributed by Cascade Comprehensive Care.

Comfort smiled brightly as she scrubbed lockers and talked about her affinity for volunteering.

She attended Klamath Union and took some courses in early elementary education at Klamath Community College, obtaining her GED in 2009. The Employment Readiness program at completion will give her volunteer experience, community contacts, and a certificate of completion.

The program also helps her meet goals at home, such as shopping on a budget, cooking healthy meals, and tips for parenting her boys, ages 2, 4, and 6.

“It’s crazy at my house,” she said, with a laugh.

But she hasn’t always been able to laugh in regards to her personal life.

Speaking of her postpartum depression, she said,“I didn’t really care about much … my depression wasn’t really being taken care of.”

After having to quit taking courses at Klamath Community College in 2014, Comfort now is working on getting back into the workforce.

“I want to be a good example for them,” Comfort said. “Being on the system kind of gets dropped down from generation to generation … I want my boys to see me working.”

She wasn’t always so sure what she would find in the program when she first started in late October.

“When I found out about it, I was like, eight weeks; what are we going to do all day?” Comfort said.

“We’re really not just sitting here all day,” she added.

What Comfort has found is a full-circle program, equipped with cooking classes each day followed by volunteer work in the afternoon.

She’s already amassing volunteer experience and networking contacts during the several weeks since she started, volunteering at a variety of places in the community, including the Klamath County Fairgrounds.

“It feels good,” Comfort said.

Participants write thank you cards to the places where they volunteer, forging camaraderie and good networking opportunities. Each part of the program is a step toward reaching her goals.

Mentorship along the way

Taylor, Comfort’s job coach and mentor through the program, is alongside to help.

He is one of four job coaches, one for each class of students enrolled in the program, according to Alan Eberlein, of Klamath Works.

Having obtained his own GED, associates, and soon-to-be bachelor’s degree, Taylor can relate with students who have experienced bumps along the road of life.

“I tell them my story, and I say, “What makes you any different?” he said. “If you don’t take the time to invest in yourself, what’s going to make everybody else invest in you? You’ve got to know how to sell yourself,” he added. “You improve the product. The product is you. You become the best you you can be.

Slumping his shoulders, Taylor explained that many who come into the program do so with deflated self-esteem. Within eight weeks, the goal is to see them lift their confidence level as well as their skills.

“Because they’re on assistance, they’re perceived as lazy or non-achieving,” Taylor said. “They get brain-washed to that mindset. But when they come here and start achieving and reaching their goals, it turns on a light.”

Taylor mentors those enrolled in the program to take stock of themselves and build up self-sufficiency, and keeps track of them after they leave and become employed.

“One of the main goals of this program is to leave and become employed, Taylor said.

But the focus is also for students to leave with their shoulders and spirits high.

“Nobody’s ever said, yeah, you can,” Taylor said. “Too much they’ve said, ‘Get back, you can’t.

“When they see themselves taking what they thought was an obstacle and now they turn it into a stepping stone … I tell them, “‘You did that.’”

Employers interested in taking part in the Jobs Plus Program can contact the Klamath Works Readiness Program at 541-887-8495.

To learn more, go online at www.klamathworks.com.