Access for All: A story of hope

La’Tasha Smith knew she needed a way out of homelessness. She found that way out through our skilled trades training program, Access for All.

Video by Charles Ashley. Story by Dave Phillips. Photos by Brian Craig and Sydney Kispert-Bostick.

A cold Pontiac Grand Am doesn’t provide a restful night’s sleep in the dead of a Detroit winter, but for La’Tasha Smith, it was home for nearly a year.

La’Tasha knew she needed a way out, so when she found out about United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s Access for All program, which provides entry into the skilled trades workforce, she enrolled. Committing to the class is equivalent to a full-time job, and La’Tasha already worked two jobs just to make enough for gas, food and other basic necessities.

Being homeless is expensive. For La’Tasha, every meal meant a restaurant tab and a hot shower required a gym membership.

“I need Access for All to be access to a home,” La’Tasha said. “I need to have access to employment. I need access to a safe environment. I need access to clean water. I need access to other opportunities.”

The goal of Access for All is to connect Detroiters like La’Tasha with jobs building the future of the city. The demand for skilled labor is great, but it can be difficult for employers to find job applicants who have the required skillsets. According to an annual survey published by ManpowerGroup, skilled trade vacancies have been the hardest jobs for employers to fill for seven consecutive years. Skilled trades are expected to account for 5,415 new jobs in Michigan by 2022, with those positions expected to pay an average hourly wage of $23.71 — nearly three times the state’s minimum wage.

Access for All prepares Detroit residents who are 18 and older for those jobs. The nine-week course provides the knowledge and skills students need to step right into an apprenticeship program, where they can make money while learning about their trade.

“I need Access for All to be access to a home.” — La’Tasha Smith, Access for All student

“Our job is to leave our community better than what we got from the folks before us,” said Ed Egnatios, Program Officer at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a United Way partner that also provides funding for Access for All.

“I want to see career pathways rebuilt. I want to see new opportunities for Detroiters — particularly Detroiters of color — that were just never there before. Opportunities to go into growing fields, opportunities to have their children live in a secure family setup, and at the same time really shape the future of the city of Detroit. We have that chance right now.”

Access for All has been a success, connecting 81 percent of graduates with jobs as laborers, equipment operators, sheet metal workers, carpenters and bricklayers. La’Tasha entered the class hoping that those odds would be in her favor.

Access for All students and instructors board up a vacant home in southwest Detroit during a weeklong work project.

‘HE ENDED HIS LIFE AND MINE AS WELL’

La’Tasha’s situation wasn’t always so dire. In 2014, she had a good job, working security at a high-rise office building in downtown Detroit. But in an instant, everything changed.

La’Tasha was making her rounds at work when a man jumped to his death from the roof of the parking structure. She blamed herself and began seeing a therapist following the incident but was ultimately laid off for medical reasons.

“My life started to down spiral,” she said. “I became really, really depressed, and there was no exit to that depression for me. I took a real hard hit. It was almost like he ended his life and mine as well.”

Out of work and unable to stop thinking about the sight or the sound of the incident, La’Tasha turned to drinking.

“I was abusing alcohol because I needed to sleep,” she said. “I needed to close my eyes. I needed to get those images out of my head. I needed some type of break.”

At her lowest point, she received the wake-up call she needed when her 2-year-old niece entered her room and picked up La’Tasha’s cup, which was full of liquor.

“At that moment, I knew I had to come back to reality,” she said. “I had to save myself. After that, I poured my cup down the toilet, I picked her up, and I hugged her and I thanked her. She was the source of getting me through that tough time, a little 2-year-old. She fueled that fire that I needed to be re-lit.”

La'Tasha Smith puts her hand behind her and urges her fellow classmates to pull their classmates forward.

La’Tasha urges her classmates to reach behind them and pull their fellow classmates forward during her speech at the Access for All class’s graduation.

La'Tasha and her fellow graduates pose for a photo after receiving their certificates.

La’Tasha and her fellow graduates pose for a photo after receiving their certificates.

PROVIDING A PATH TO EMPLOYMENT

“We’re trying to get the students to really know who they are and what their skillsets are,” said JoAnn Bailey, an instructor for the class.

Graduates obtain necessary builder’s certifications, and they’re able to step into apprenticeship programs that pay a livable wage right after graduation. Once on that path, participants can work all the way up to management if they so choose.

Seeing a need for improved workforce conditions throughout the city in 2012, United Way brought together potential funders and industry stakeholders to create Access for All.

Don O’Connell, a retired tradesman with 40 years of experience in the construction trades, is an engagement specialist for Access for All. He said United Way’s guidance has been just as important as the funding it has provided. Similar programs have failed in the past because of a lack of buy-in or due to a disconnect between the trades industry and participating students. While experts in the trades had the industry knowledge, they struggled with articulating that to students who had no baseline understanding of the work. United Way added its expertise in working with the community to optimize the curriculum to meet the various needs of students in order to help them succeed. United Way’s involvement also elicited support from other organizations and stakeholders.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got a much better product because of United Way’s involvement,” Don said.

Don’s title may be engagement specialist, but he’s the ultimate utility man for Access for All. He recruits students, serves as a sounding board for them and manages relationships between industry leaders and students. Often, he gets his hands dirty alongside students during the required service project, which mimics a real-life worksite and its requirements. Don said he built a great life through the trades but this has been the most rewarding part of his career.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got a much better product because of United Way’s involvement.” — Don O’Connell, engagement specialist, Access for All

“I’ve been given a good opportunity and I want to share these opportunities with others that may not otherwise get that opportunity,” he said.

It’s paying off.

“I’m seeing how much these folks value the opportunity they’re getting,” Don said. “I see the hopes they have. I see the eagerness to want to work. If we’re providing a middle-class lifestyle, we can make Detroit a better place to live.”

Contractors are catching on, too. Various unions are active participants in Access for All, hosting field trips, networking with students and conducting mock job interviews. One day of networking included, in part, representatives from the sheet metal workers, carpenters, bricklayers and operating engineers unions.

“The feedback we’re getting from the contracting community is very positive,” Don said. “They tell us we’re getting the job done. They’re getting very motivated employees.”

JoAnn also knows about the determination her students — who affectionately call her “Ms. Bailey” — have. The sixth Access for All cohort graduated this spring, and each class features students of a variety of ages, backgrounds and work histories. There are always standouts, but La’Tasha is a particularly special case.

“La’Tasha has a lot of grit — a lot of stamina,” JoAnn said. “I don’t know if I could go through what she goes through. She’s here every day, on time. She doesn’t complain. She’s really determined and she’s committed that she wants to work in the trades.”

The respect is mutual.

“Ms. Bailey pushed me through, because I was going to give up,” La’Tasha said. She didn’t want her classmates or instructors to know about her situation, but she told JoAnn, who would let her enter the building early to wash up before class.

“I was in a dark place and she provided light,” La’Tasha said.

During a weeklong work project, Access for All students improved, cleaned and beautified a neighborhood in southwest Detroit.

SUNDAY SCHOOL

On Sundays, La’Tasha is the one spreading light, teaching Sunday school on the second floor of the sprawling Second Ebenezer Church facility while her students’ parents attend a lively mass downstairs.

“My little ones — when I have a bad day, they just knock it out of the park,” La’Tasha said while putting coloring supplies away as class ended. “They’re always warm and energetic and ready. It keeps me on my toes, keeps me motivated and keeps me going.”

Second Ebenezer is also where La’Tasha first learned about Access for All. She has the support of the church’s massive following.

“It’s so inspiring to see, knowing the struggle she’s undergoing but also knowing her passion, her drive and her determination to get through it all and be that beacon of light,” said Sabrina Quince, Children’s Ministry Leader at Second Ebenezer.

Access for All students helped build garden beds during a weeklong work project in southwest Detroit.

THE SKY’S THE LIMIT

La’Tasha made such an impression on her classmates that they chose her as one of two speakers at graduation in April. There, she asked her classmates to extend their hands and pull the person behind them along.

Later that month, La’Tasha was hired at Dan’s Excavating, where she operates a roller, compacting sand prior to rock and asphalt being laid on roadways.

“It has been life changing,” she said. “I have learned so much. Access for All sent me on my way with everything I needed.”

La’Tasha continued to live out of her car for more than three months after she began her new job, saving money, organizing her paperwork and looking for the right home. She was the first person to the worksite every morning, all summer long. Just like her classmates, she didn’t want her co-workers to know she was homeless, either.

“Getting the job, I was excited, but I knew there was not going to be this overnight, exceptional change,” La’Tasha said.

“Access for All sent me on my way with everything I needed.” — La’Tasha Smith, Access for All graduate

She didn’t go from the car to a home overnight. While waiting for circumstances to align, La’Tasha learned about other United Way resources, like budget coaching, to get her finances in order. She connected with some of United Way’s funded partners — like the United Community Housing Coalition, which helped with a down payment for her home, and the Furniture Bank of Southeastern Michigan, where she found furnishings, like a bed. This is common for many people working their way out of poverty, which is why social services are vital on their path to financial stability.

Finally, after almost 10 months of living in that Grand Am, she moved into a townhouse on the west side of Detroit

La'Tasha Smith signs her lease papers.

La’Tasha’s eyes welled with happy tears as she signed her lease agreement.

La'Tasha Smith ges the keys to her new home.

She was all smiles as she received the keys to her new home.

“The journey has been long,” she said. “Finally, I can say it’s mine. I can call it home. I’m not staying here — I can actually live here.”

The days leading up to the signing of the lease had been stressful, and La’Tasha didn’t even know when she’d be able to pick up her keys until hours before she unlocked her door.  Safety vest still on, she raced to sign her lease right after work. Her eyes welled with tears as she signed the papers, but, ever smiling, she kept her composure and laughed it off.

“I’m probably not even going to sleep tonight,” she said. She stood on the front porch — her front porch — as she spoke. “I’m just going to walk around and say ‘Hello,’ yell out the windows, run out the door, lock it, unlock it and come back in.”

With the Furniture Bank’s help, La’Tasha’s townhouse will be fully furnished, taking her from a couple of bucket seats, a bench seat and a glove box to a bed, couches and dressers.

“I think the sky’s the limit now,” she said. “There’s nowhere to go but up from here, especially when you’ve got a place to call home. Access for All put me in the right position and connected me with the right individuals to make things happen, and in the end, everything fell into place.

“I finally have that lease signed and those keys on my keychain. It’s all I can ask for.”

Editor’s note: United Way for Southeastern Michigan would like to thank Cutters Studio for providing all video post-production work on this project.