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Sing, Shout, Learn, & Work

At Cara, motivation is a mighty force

Four mornings a week, joy and determination break out in a loft space just west of Chicago’s Loop. Some 60 men and women form an exuberant circle to share their stories, cheer each other on, sing, dance, applaud, and address profound questions.

Questions have included: “What do you love about yourself?” “What is the title of your obituary?” And when actor Bill Murray joined the circle a few years ago: “What goals have you set [to achieve] for your life and through your life?” (His robust answer is available on YouTube.)

The early-morning tradition is called Motivations; the participants are people in search of sustainable work and new lives. The program is Cara, a job training, placement, and retention program with a certain style: a holistic program that feels thoughtful and yet jet-propelled. In fact, CEO Maria Kim calls Cara “a runway to employment.”

Since 1991, the “runway” has been offering intensive job and life-skills development courses that have put more than 5,000 people in jobs. The stories are heartrending and heartwarming: Ronald once lived on the Blue Line of the Chicago L system; now he’s a bus server for the Chicago Transit Authority. Oreletta beat her addiction through another program, then transformed herself into a breast cancer program coordinator at a major medical center through Cara. Many of Cara’s participants hail from the Austin neighborhood where 30.7 percent of neighbors live below the poverty line and from the North Lawndale neighborhood where 4o percent of neighbors do.

Meanwhile Cara has developed its own businesses: Cleanslate, a neighborhood beautification program and TCP Staffing, a temp firm. Both help graduates get work experience as they transition to a stable job.

The program and its ethos are so infectious, Cara participants actually create the Motivations circle for companies in need of a little zing. The questions and tasks prove just as hard for full-time employees as they do for job seekers. Imagine the challenge and the electrical charge when someone across the room commands, “Motivate me! What next for you, my friend?”