Monday, September 26, 2016

The Tomorrow Project

Written by Hafsa Badsha

There’s this warm, pleasant medley of scents that hit you as soon you enter 1777 Fifth Ave, San Diego, home to the Tomorrow Project. The source sits on a table in the centre of the room; neatly arranged packages of soup, ranging from flavours like Tropical Lime Pink Peppercorn to an Indonesian Curry Spice Mix. In a room to the left, stationary spills out of every corner, in all sizes and shapes. These are just some of a few projects the women at the Tomorrow Project have been working on, products that will go out into the market to be sold, under the guidance of staff member Shayna Jennings.

It’s a busy, bustling morning when I arrive to meet Shayna, and as decided, we have 30 minutes to wrap up our interview, after which work proceeds. The Tomorrrow Project runs like clockwork, everything precise and in perfect order, qualities needed for an institution that helps rehabilitate homeless and unemployed women and prepares them for employment.

“It’s a job readiness program for homeless and low income women in San Diego,” Shayna explains to me, “It began in 1994 as program of Catholic Charities and was initiated by Sister Raymonda and Martha Ranson,. In ’94, we realised that though we had other services for women, like a drop in day centre and night shelter, but we saw that with the women coming through those programs, there was a need for job training. They needed something productive to do with their time, and to be able to move forward.”

The women come from a diverse range of backgrounds, with their own struggles and stories. “Some women have Master’s degrees and have literally lost their jobs and have literally lost their jobs, women who may have recent issues and women who are still in recovery. We’re seeing higher barriers that women are combating,” says Shayna, “Whether that be mental illnesses (which 80% of the women are diagnosed with), substance abuse, criminal histories, or physical disabilities. When they go out to seek jobs, these are the factors that hinder them and make it challenging. We want to instil the tools and training that enables them not only to get a job, but to keep it.”
Creating a work environment at The Tomorrow Project’s centre is vital, says Shayna, as well as helping women adapt and settle into a new space. “It’s not like a typical job where if you don’t show up on time, it could get you into trouble. Instead, we look at the situation, using it as a coaching opportunity and say, ‘Ok, what happened and how can we fix this?’” Helping the women get back into the flow of a workplace is also something they work on, “We’re trying to help them get back to coming into work on time, to remember what it’s like to work for six or seven hours.”

The job market has drastically changed the way it approaches potential employees in the last few years, a turn of events that hasn’t always worked in their favour, “I think the biggest challenge now is electronic, you don’t have that face to face interaction anymore,” says Shayna, “You don’t have quite the human touch that you once did. For the women that we work with, the internet is a very different environment, considering most are 50 and above.”

The Tomorrow Project has utilised its space wisely, channelling it into a job hub of sorts. They help the women source jobs, with different companies approaching them directly for employees, and also have various tasks within the organisation that create products that are sold locally, like their soup. “We have an assembly line process that creates simple tasks for anyone to be able to; it creates a level field for everyone to start on,” says Shayna, “The soups are one part of what we do. We also do piece work; we have companies that send us product and we put them together. We’re working on charm bracelets right now, as well as a stationery company called the Loom and a coffee roasting company called Café Modo.  They said us huge bags of tea, and we weigh it, portion and box it out.” The women are giving a stipend for the products they make, an amount that is used to slowly help them get back on their feet, “There was a woman that did not finish high school and didn’t have a diploma,” Shayna tells me, “One of the things that we worked was saving the money that she earned here to take some of those classes and get her GED.”

Around us, what has been a quiet environment for nearly half an hour is slowly coming back to life. Women start moving to their workstations to work on piecing together the charm bracelets in front of them. With Shayna and her volunteers are quick to remind them of their tasks, both motivating and encouraging them, The Tomorrow Project Centre is as energetic a force as when I entered.

I look up. It’s 12:30 on the dot. Back to work.