OLC Welfare-to-Work Named Exceptional

May 15th, 2001 | By | Category: 12-4: Colleges for the Community, Tribal College News
By Michele Allen

The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is known for its grim statistics and overwhelming poverty. The Oglala Lakota residents are the poorest in the country. It trails only Haiti in the Western Hemisphere in dying young (at approximately age 45). The infant and suicide rates are three times the national average. Over 70 percent of the people are unemployed. Rates of diabetes, alcoholism, heart disease, and accidents top all other races (including other tribes) in the nation.

Statistics like these are enough to make grown people cry. Several in fact did at the Welfare-to-Work Beyond 2000 National Conference held in Phoenix, Ariz., last October. The OLC Welfare-to-Work program, Wakanyeja Un Wowasi (work now for the children), was selected as one of the exceptional programs in the country. It was one of 15 presented at the conference and is one of hundreds nationwide.

Joyce Wheeler, support liaison coordinator, presented the OLC program along with two colleagues. She said several people came up afterwards and said that they’d heard of Pine Ridge before on the news, but it was never real to them before. Many audience members openly cried. Several asked her for more information on the program specifically and Pine Ridge in general.

OLC was awarded a $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor in October 1998 to assist TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) recipients in transitioning from welfare to unsubsidized employment. Unsubsidized employment is defined as no longer receiving any type of government aid such as welfare or food stamps. The goal is to place 150 (21 percent) of Pine Ridge’s welfare clients by March 31, 2002. To date the program has completed 263 intakes and has placed 96 clients in this type of employment.

A typical client is a 32 year old female with two to three children. She usually lives in public housing with relatives. She didn’t finish high school but is working on a GED (General Education Diploma). She worked a little over three months in the past year. Nearly half needed child care. Many did not have transportation or a driver’s license.

The philosophy at Wakanyeja Un Wowasi is that getting a job is only the beginning. It’s a first step in rebuilding a sense of well-being, hope, and power over one’s own life. The mission is to build a circle of support that assists people who are currently unemployed or are hindered by personal and systemic barriers to attain and maintain self-sufficiency. In essence, the program provides job readiness and basic skills training. Wakanyeja Un Wowasi offers driver’s education training. To aid communication between potential employers and employees, the program developed a partnership with Golden West Telecommunications to provide a voice mailbox system for participants to access messages.

When clients are initially interviewed, they are given a depression survey due to the high unemployment rate, high poverty rate, and high drug and alcohol abuse. If identified as depressed, liaisons work with the Indian Health Service to provide counseling. Because caring for children is the basic traditional value of the Lakota, Wakanyeja Un Wowasi will pay for the first two weeks of child care at either a tribal or state child care program.

Additionally, the program offers employers a wage subsidy to ensure that clients receive at least the minimum wage of $6 an hour. Employers receive $1,500 from the program to subsidize wages, and if the employee is still working after six months, employers are eligible for another $1,500. Employers are eligible for federal tax credits including one for hiring former welfare recipients and a new credit for hiring Native Americans. Wakanyeja Un Wowasi provides training to employers and supervisors, which includes cultural sensitivity. The program also pays for any training related to the job.

To help clients once they are placed, monthly pot luck dinners are held to discuss various topics such as budgeting, time management, communication skills, and balancing work and family. The success of this program proves that going from welfare to work truly can and will improve the quality of life for ourselves and our children.

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