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Nonprofit provides experience, job opportunities for W.Va. women

By Caity Coyne
The Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In July 2015, the staff of West Virginia Women Work, a nonprofit that trains women for the construction industry, was almost certain they’d have to close their doors at the end of the year due to lack of funding.

Wednesday afternoon, however, three 2016 graduates of the program stood on a lawn in North Charleston, excavating land for a drain and preparing to build a porch after being hired by general contractor Rachel Perry, owner of Responsible Renovations LLC.

“This particular area has been poverty stricken for so long. It’s very difficult to find a sustainable income in something that you can be proud of in this area,” Perry said. “This program [WVWW] gives them that — it gives them a new lease on life.”

Heather Neal, Amy Sergent and Nikki Hilbert, Perry’s recent hires, all graduated from pre-apprenticeship programs offered by WVWW last year.

The classes they took serve 80-90 women a year and focus on electrical work, plumbing and carpentry, giving students the hands-on technical experience they need to secure a job in the construction industry, said Misty Mayville, WVWW job developer and program coordinator in Kanawha Valley.

Perry has operated Responsible Renovations for about a year and a half. During that time she has hired workers from WVWW and others from outside, but she said there is a definitive difference in their work.

“[WVWW-trained workers are] more skilled. They’ve been trained on these tools,” Perry said. “They really learn a lot of skills, and they learn the right way to do it.”

And while it’s hard work, the women who do it would not want to be anywhere else.

“Towards the end of me working in a call center, I was developing anxiety and depression from being inside all the time,” Neal, 31, of St. Albans, said. “You were confined. At least here you’re doing something different every day. It’s really changed my outlook a lot.”

In addition to offering a different type of work, Neal and the others said the program instills a new confidence in them while breaking down some of the walls that may bar some women from entering such a male-dominated field.

“Women aren’t just made to have just the typical woman job like people think,” Neal said.

Sergent, 43, from Putnam County, also worked in call centers before joining WVWW. When she’d thought about doing this type of work before, she always heard “no” because of her gender, she said. While she still may hear the word sometimes, now she’s confident in her capabilities, “and we don’t let them tell us no!” Perry yelled.

“[As women] we have to work twice as hard,” Mayville said. “It is what it is.”

WVWW offers the women the resources they need to enter the industry, Mayville said. Students are provided with a reimbursable $100 for any materials required to land their first jobs.

Of the women in the programs, 97 percent make less than $5,000 annually before entering the organization. With an 80 percent job-placement rate, the 17-year-old program has helped hundreds of women pull themselves out of poverty and become self-sufficient, making between $500 and $1,000 a week once they’re hired.

“A lot of these women are in families just trying to keep their heads above water,” said Kristine Szczyrbak, deputy director of the organization.

The organization runs on a $400,000 annual operating budget. Like any nonprofit, Szczyrbak said, it’s never really on sure footing, as funding depends on competitive grant programs and donors. The state government has some money reserved for training funds, but WVWC only gets a small portion of that money each year.

In 2015, Szczyrbak and Mayville, along with the rest of the organization were trying to “patch together grant funding” to keep their organization — and the students in it — afloat when a grant from the Department of Labor made their hard work pay off.

Now, while they are on more stable ground than they were two years ago, nothing is ever certain. Szczyrbak said she’s sure that’s unsettling for anyone not accustomed to working for something passion-driven, but helping these women and giving them opportunities are what she and Mayville love to do.

“If we can’t put these people out there — if we can’t train these ladies and put them out there — we’re the only ones who do what we do,” Mayville said. “Where there is a will, there is an absolute way. If this goes away, I guess some people could care less, but we’ve helped a lot of women. We’ve put a lot of women to work, and that’s helped the state. That’s helped us all.”

Reach Caity Coyne at [email protected], 304-348-5100 or follow @caitycoyne on Twitter.

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