< Back to Stories of Hope & Change

Cooking Up New Solutions

WOW offers job training, housing help, and now a mobile classroom

Living in Denver with no job and few skills is a rough ride. Add probation and a one-year-old son, and Maggie’s prospects looked worse than dim. After an unsuccessful stay with her parents, she was homeless.

That’s when her probation officer recommended a program that would train her for a job with plenty of opportunities. Work Options for Women (WOW), with support from the McGowan Fund, trained Maggie as a prep cook, helped her find a place to live, and guided her job search. WOW also provided her with a $100 per week stipend and on-the-job experience. The program runs two cafés.

She ran into challenges. Measuring was one. “Maggie doesn’t particularly like math, which makes her like everyone else in the program,” recalls Julie Stone, WOW’s executive director. “But she was willing to work on it.”

Cultivating that willingness and shaping behavior are key components of the program. A cognitive behavioral class helps students understand employer expectations. “Rolling your eyes is a $5 offense,” Stone notes. Teachers build confidence. Case managers teach job readiness, including interview skills. “Students practice describing themselves. For instance, ‘My chef says I have a really good medium dice,’” says Stone.

In 2017, WOW enrolled 142 students with challenging backgrounds. All had low incomes or none at all. Eighty-four percent had encountered the criminal justice system, 74 percent had experienced violence in their own homes, and more than half had young children living with them. After the six-week program, 62 became sustainably employed.

Today, Maggie is a line cook earning one of the highest pay rates WOW has seen. She’s also the smiling face on the side of WOW’s newest acquisition, a 26-foot trailer that brings classroom training to women living in halfway houses. Data showed that halfway house residents, especially those who had personal experience with the criminal justice system, tended to drop out of training more than any other group. The new mobile program addresses the special barriers these women face, and WOW’s success stories have multiplied accordingly. More than 100 trainees earned sustainable employment in 2018.

Meanwhile, with a steady job and a good place to live, Maggie is more than pleased with her ongoing stability. “Being there for my son—it’s more than a reward,” she says.

This 2018 grant: $40,000