Program puts participants on path to better life

ROCHESTER — Before finding her way to Operation Transform Rochester. Malaysha Strozier considered going back to prison.

Her husband had been harassing her to the point that she longed for a way out, even if that meant prison time, she said during a Sept. 24 intake session for the city program designed to help residents in all types of situations get back on their feet.

Upon seeing Strozier in crisis, her grandmother connected her with Paul McFadden from OTR, she said. Her mother is raising her two children, one of whom she delivered while incarcerated.

"I feel good starting off fresh," said Strozier, who had not heard of OTR before. "I want to take advantage of everything this program has to offer … staying on a positive road so I don’t have to go back to prison."

Strozier served 26 months of a three-year sentence for assault. Through OTR, she will receive tutoring so she can obtain her high-school equivalency diploma as well as job training, she said. The program also will help her enroll in anger management classes and pair her with a mentor to ensure she keeps herself in a safe environment, McFadden said.

"This is not just a program; you’re getting a family," he noted. "There should never be a time in your life that you’re better off (going) back to prison."

The idea to help city residents find a path to a better life developed about three years ago when Mayor Lovely Warren was Rochester City Council president, she said. She saw what was happening to members of her own extended family who had not graduated from high school, Warren said. Years later, they were stuck in low-paying jobs and were starting to have children and even getting themselves involved in crime, she added.

"I looked at what’s happening in the community and there are many people out there who didn’t know what support services are available to them or didn’t know how to access those services," Warren said.

Such people would be well-served by having an advocate to champion them and propel them "to do the right thing," which the program tries to do, she noted.

"Everybody needs one person to believe in them," Warren said.

Paul McFadden addresses the participants in Operation Transform Rochester during an Oct. 10 session.

Since its inception, the program has evolved to include youth services and the Fresh Start component for adults, which guides participants who may need tutoring or employment training or referrals, and pairs them with mentors.

Fresh Start staff members offer weekly intake sessions on the Rundel Library’s third floor as a single point of entry, so no one has to wait long to enroll in any component of OTR, explained Ken Sayres, director of the city’s bureau of employment, skills training and youth services.

Once they enroll, participants may be referred to outside services, he noted, so mentoring is essential to keep each person connected to the OTR program. About 55 of the 80 mentors are active volunteers with OTR, Sayres said.

"We are a one-stop shop," added James Waters Jr., an OTR senior professional development specialist.

The program’s goal is to help each participant define what success is and develop a plan to get there, he added.

"For some, getting a GED is a small step," Waters offered as an example. "For others, a GED is a huge step."

Helping each participant determine that next step is a process of "give and take," said Jeff Bonds, who volunteers as an OTR mentor.

The person he is paired with now is a high-school dropout who is doing well, having earned her high-school diploma and enrolled at Monroe Community College to study nursing, Bonds said.

"It’s a matter of how serious you are," Bonds added about each participant’s potential for success. "It’s not easy."

When it comes to job training, mentors like Bonds also help emphasize soft skills needed for success, like arriving on time for a job interview or for work and dressing appropriately, Warren said. So upon completing employment training, mentors often serve as job coaches, she added.

"What we found is … that unless you provide (participants) with ongoing support through mentorship, it’s hard for people to turn away from their old lifestyles," Warren said.

And the mentors also may step in and advocate for a participant who maybe has not yet realized the importance of those skills and may be facing losing a job, the mayor added.

Rochester employers also are seeing a dearth of potential employees with middle-skills jobs, at a time when such skills will be even more in demand as the region moves forward with Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster projects, Warren said. Through OTR, a manufacturer is now providing training by offer math classes as well as hands-on work on machines, she noted.

"Our goal was to fill in the void many people (in Rochester) felt as barriers to access" to stable employment, she said.

The OTR program also provides workshops on practical skills, such as an Oct. 10 session about living on a budget led by Arnishia Jordan, who coordinates the financial management program for Lifespan.

"Some of us live paycheck to paycheck to paycheck," Jordan said. "My priority is that you have a roof over your head, your utility bills paid, food to eat, prescriptions — the things that are necessities."

Providing for her 4-year-old daughter is what brought Wanda Correa to OTR after hearing about the program from a friend, she said after the Oct. 10 workshop. She dropped out of school at 16 and now understands how that limits her opportunities, she said.

"I regret it," said Correa, 24. "I didn’t like school."

Once she gets her diploma, she would like to find work as a clinical medical assistant and become a good role model for her child, she added. And she is grateful that a program like OTR exists to help make that a reality, Correa said.

"It will help people, support people so they can look forward in life," she said. "Sometimes we need that support … to tell you what you need to do so that I can do what I need to do for me and my daughter."

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information or to enroll in Operation Transformation Rochester, call 585-428-6342 or visit cityofrochester.gov/otr.

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