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Bridges to Career Opportunities Graduates Start a New Chapter in Life

Brian Bunting received his National Institute for Metalworking Skills training through the Bridges to Career Opportunities program.

Photos by Annie Grossinger

To commit to reviving your finances or establishing a career takes perseverance and determination. It’s not a quick fix nor is it easy without the support of others. Two graduates of LISC’s Bridges to Career Opportunities program share their story of how they capitalized on opportunities to better their future.

 Through the Bridges to Career Opportunities program, clients working with LISC’s national network of Financial Opportunity Centers (FOC) can ramp up foundational literacy and math skills, get technical training and pursue certifications for a particular industry—and receive support like financial coaching to set long-term goals and help manage expenses during training. These programs connect clients to “middle skills” jobs with a career pathway, and help local employers staff up with employees who can get the job done.

Jovan Sams joined the North Lawndale Employment Network as part of this 2016 New Year’s resolution.

Jovan Sams

On New Year’s Eve, 2016, Jovan Sams made a resolution he planned to keep: get his life together for his family. As the father of eight kids, he was concerned about his ability to provide. He had been unemployed for seven years, relying on side jobs for income, such as car repair and cutting grass. It wasn’t enough.

“I’ve got a lot of people depending on me,” he said. “And I knew I had a lot of skills to offer the world.”

Raised in the Jane Addams projects, Jovan was surrounded by temptation. Despite being a mechanic by age 16, he ended up in the wrong crowd.

“Everybody was selling drugs, gang banging. I wanted to fit in, so I started hanging with the wrong crowd doing things I had no business doing,” he said.

After serving time for a felony conviction, he couldn’t find employment. The felony label was more powerful than his years as a mechanic. In 2015, he declared bankruptcy. It was a pivotal moment that inspired him to change.

“I wanted something for the long-haul. I wanted a career, not just a job.”

As part of his New Year’s resolution, he walked into the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) and asked to take advantage of all the services available to him. First, he completed the U-Turn Permitted program in June 2016. He received job readiness training, which included lessons on how to approach his felony conviction with employers. Two weeks after his graduation, Jovan’s coach referred him to a transitional job at Foundation for Homan Square, where he was hired as a front-desk greeter at Nichols Tower. While working, he completed Moving Forward, NLEN’s Diesel Mechanic Training Program, concurrently with NLEN’s Bridge Literacy program. As he neared the end of his transitional job, he was hired as a Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Apprentice through the CTA’s Second Chance program. Through the program, he passed his repair and mechanic, and Bus Operator exams.

Throughout Jovan’s journey, his commitment was tested. His son was shot in the leg and his daughter was hospitalized due to congestive heart failure. Despite this, he never missed a day of work. According to him, NLEN became a refuge.

“It showed me that life can be taken at any moment,” he said. “You have to choose what you want in life. You have to make precise decisions. Choose what you want and stick it through.”

In addition, he had to manage his changing path while surrounded by former friends who were still engaged in illicit activity.

“Trying to be positive around a lot of negative people is hard,” he said. To give himself some space, he kept to his home and shed the friends that weren’t supportive.

Recently, Jovan accepted a promotion at the CTA to become a rail car repair man. He’s now a part of the union and sees a path to management in the future.

“I’m in a state of euphoria,” he said. “I talk to everyone about NLEN. I wish there was a line going out the door. There’s a lot of people that don’t know about it that need to know.”

Computer classes were part of Jovan Sams' Bridges to Career Opportunities training.

However, Jovan acknowledges that it takes effort and perseverance to complete the program.   “You can’t just come in here, you have to be serious about changing. People are used to old habits. You get out of jail and the same people in there are right here. It’s like you’re trapped. If you don’t have people to encourage you, if you don’t have plans, you’ll stay there.”

Jovan credits his family and the teachers at NLEN for supporting him and his journey. Despite graduating, he still frequents NLEN to meet with his financial coach, use the computer lab and keep up with his teachers. “I always want to be here,” he said.

His financial coach helped him raise his credit score over 200 points. Eventually, he hopes to own his own home. Right now, though he looks forward to the stability of his new job.

“Things have been happening real fast. I set out to change in a year and it happened in three months. I’m just thankful that someone is seeing it and taking notice,” he said.

Brian Bunting joined the Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC) in March 2016.

Brian Bunting

Brian Bunting has worked construction for 35 years in eight states. He moved from job site to job site, following the work as it went. However, Chicago, his last destination, was his trickiest transition.

“I’ve never worked somewhere that the motto is: We don’t want nobody that nobody sent,” he said. Meaning, as a new transplant to Chicago, his newness was a hindrance. In Chicago, workers needed to have an “in” and they needed to be part of the Union.

“I was used to showing up on the job site and talking to the superintendent. That doesn’t work here,” he said.

Brian moved to Chicago in 2008 at the request of his wife, who was sick and wanted to be close to her family. In 2012, eight days before their 10th wedding anniversary, she passed away. The tragedy caused him to turn to liquor.

“I was out of whack. I needed to do something. I was 11,000 miles from everyone I knew.”

It was Brian’s doctor, who was helping him recover from a back injury that passed him a pamphlet for the Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC). She told him, “This might be a fit for you.” At that point, he had been unemployed for three years. In March 2016, he was accepted into the program.

“I was scared and intimidated,” he said. “Living in a city of three million where I don’t know anyone, but I didn’t have a choice. This was my last chance to make something of myself, to be self-sufficient.”

Brian applied for JARC’s Computer Numerical Control (CNC) program. As part of the application process, he took a TABE test. He scored at an 11thgrade level in reading but at a 5th grade level in math, a significantly lower result than the 9thgrade level required to be accepted into the CNC program. Brian was discouraged by the results, but accepted the offer to join the Bridge Program to improve his skills.

One of Brian’s math teachers gave him his cell phone number and told him to call day or night.

“I was reluctant to it,” Brian said. “I finally reached out. One Saturday night, I was home studying, and I called him up and said I was having trouble. Gabe talked me through it.”

In three months, he reached a 9th grade level.

Brian Bunting  visits Jackie Guzman, one of his teachers at JARC.

“I like the atmosphere at JARC. They’ve treated me really well here,” he said. “I beat myself up more than anybody could if things don’t go as fast or as well as I want them to, but they worked with me. They stuck by me. I guess they saw something in me I didn’t see in myself at the time.”

While in training, Brian met with the Income Supports Specialist, who suggested he apply for food stamps. He also met with a Financial Coach several times and participated in Financial Education workshops. He enrolled in JARC’s Press Brake program and obtained the National Institute for Metal Working Skills (NIMS), OSHA for General Industry credentials, and a Forklift Operator’s License. Soon after, with support from his Employment Coach and JARC’s Job Development team, he was hired full-time as a Press Break Operator at Chicago Dryer.

“I couldn’t dream of a better job for myself,” Brian said. It was the hours he’d hope for, an easy location and a team of people that he likes. “I started a whole new chapter.”

With a steady paying job, he’s able to pay back his landlord, Anne, who had been lenient with sporadic payments in the past. “I try to take care of her the best I can because she took care of me,” he said. She is also one of his biggest supporters, including his sister-in-law and her husband. “They think it’s fabulous.”

In his downtime, Brian is committed to his garden, where he grows tomatoes, habanero peppers, strawberries and much more.

“I’ve lived a rather colorful life. I’ve done some prison time. I’ve done some military service prior to prison. I was in a motorcycle outfit. This is the 8th state I’ve lived and worked in. I visited 47 of the 50 states – following work, following the party, following life. I never really buckled down. Now I’ve made a 20-year commitment to Chicago.”

With a smile, he said, “I’m part of the JARC family now.”

In Chicago, the work of the FOC Network is supported by multiple funders including leading support from: Bank of America; JPMorgan Chase; the Crown Family Philanthropies; State Farm; and Boeing.

For more information on LISC Chicago’s Financial Opportunity Centers or the Bridges to Career Opportunities program, contact Jennifer McClain, or (312) 422-9563.

Posted in Financial Opportunities


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