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WORK NOW HELPS TO MAP ROUTE FROM DEPENDENCY TO JOB

Portia Rowell didn't need the threat of reform to motivate her to get off welfare.

She did need some direction and support in learning job skills, searching for a job and -- most critical to single mothers -- financial assistance with day care.

It was a long time in coming for the 26-year-old mother of two. But when welfare reform started rolling through the county's Rath Building on Pearl Street, Ms. Rowell was ready and eager to catch the wave.

Five years of frustration with dependence on a welfare check and futile job searches have been washed away, and Ms. Rowell has made it from welfare to workfare.

She is one of the success stories of Work Now, a pilot program introduced about two years ago by Erie County Social Services Commissioner Deborah A. Merrifield.

The program, with a $613,343 federal grant, is expanding to 600 people.

"Fewer than 15 percent of the 150 clients who went through the program are back on welfare," and that is after getting a job several months ago," said James Kulbacki, director of Social Services' Employment Training Program.

Before welfare reform, the recidivism rate was 60 percent and sometimes even higher, Kulbacki said.

"Caseworkers weren't there to help you get a job," Ms. Rowell felt. "About all they would say is 'Go get a job that will pay you enough to live on and let us know when you get it.'

"If someone did that, they were wiped off that caseworker's list," Ms. Rowell continued. "Then, they usually found out they were hardly making enough to pay for the food and the rent, let alone for day care and hospitalization. So they quit and were back on welfare."

If welfare benefits were available to help offset minimum wages, no one told her about them, Ms. Rowell said.

That changed when she was told to report to Job Club.

Job Club -- step one of Work Now -- opened the door to the world of work for Ms. Rowell.

In addition to earning her high school diploma, Ms. Rowell had attended the University at Buffalo and taken classes at Erie Community College.

With two small children at home, the road was not easy, but she refused to give up.

"I knew I needed more skills, and whenever there was a class I could take, I would go," she said.

About three years ago, she discovered the Education Opportunity Center, located in downtown Buffalo and sponsored by the State University at Buffalo.

"I applied right away and was accepted, but then I had to really plead my case to get welfare to pay for day care," she said. "Here I was trying to get more job skills so I could get a job and get off welfare, but nobody on welfare seemed to care."

But she persisted.

Anxious to continue her studies in business, she enrolled and completed courses for both business and medical offices.

"Figured it would give me twice as many chances at a job," she grinned.

The Work Now team helped Ms. Rowell learn job interview skills, people skills and communication skills and polish up her secretarial and basic accounting skills.

Finally, resumes were flying out the door, she said, "but nothing was happening."

Then the very last day of Job Club, the call came for an interview for a temporary job at the Belmont Shelter Corp.

Now, she is a full-time permanent receptionist-secretary.

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