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Wanda Villanueva

Wanda Villanueva is extremely happy to have a job again.

The 47-year-old mother of three, who spent nearly two years hanging out in the Downtown Eastside as her life spiralled downwards, now works as an executive assistant with a first nations resource centre thanks to a federally-funded program that provides unemployed Downtown Eastside residents with either the tools to find work or a "pathway" to employment.

"They really took care of me," Villanueva said in an interview about Pathways Information Centre, a resource centre provided by Tradeworks Training Society [TTS], an employment and job-training service that helped her on the road to her job with the Aboriginal Front Door Society. "I really needed someone supportive [to] say 'Wanda, you can do it; you're a brilliant woman.'

"And I'm doing really good. I'm loving my work."

Villanueva, one of hundreds of people helped by TTS each year, suffered from depression after being seriously hurt in a motor vehicle accident several years ago.

She soon found herself on the Downtown Eastside drinking too much and doing drugs after getting involved with a bad crowd.

"I had the accident four years ago and progressively got worse," said Villanueva. "I could hardly walk. I started drinking heavily and I got in with people who offered me drugs. They weren't the greatest friends. Then I said 'this isn't me.' I was ashamed of myself, but I was in that situation for one-and-one-half years.

"So I went into Pathways and asked to meet with someone. They took care of me and said my [work] background was excellent and gave me motivation and support. They said 'Don't worry, you'll get a job. You're a beautiful person.'

"And they pointed me in the direction of what I could do. My family also helped me."

Villanueva said that with the help of Pathways counsellor Lana Cullis, she returned to college and got her diploma in employment counselling in June 2007.

"I'm a go-getter. I studied, passed with flying colours and got my diploma," added Villanueva. "I found the job myself."

TTS has been providing service in what's often called Canada's "poorest postal code" since 1994.

The non-profit society, which receives about $1.2 million in federal funding annually [$400,000 for Pathways], is dedicated to providing unemployed Downtown Eastside residents with job and life skills training and to assist them in finding and keeping jobs.

TTS works with many other organizations in finding long-term solutions to chronic unemployment and many of the people it helps have mental or physical health concerns and/or are struggling with addiction issues.

TTS has several services, including Pathways [which provides access to free computers, printing services, phones, faxes and employment counselors/

case managers on site]; a carpentry program for youth; a construction pre-employment training program; The Job Shop [which has helped over 600 people since 2001 get back to work]; and Tradeworks Custom Products, which provides training and entry-level employment for women in the Downtown Eastside.

Pathways program manager Carol Madsen said in an interview that building up trust with people is critical to the program's success.

"Many are long-time unemployed or never employed," she said. "Others have mental health issues and additional issues, like homeless people with no identification. Occasionally, we get people who are job-ready. Most of the people don't have resumes."

Madsen said their slogan -- Do for, Do with, Cheer on -- sums up the goals of Pathways, located at 390 Main. "We try to give people the skills and confidence so they start being self-sufficient. And we work with other agencies to create opportunities."

Madsen said they've helped people find work in many categories, from construction to retail.

"We often have people with anger management issues," she added. "We have a lot of very broken-down people. And there's huge self-esteem issues. They're dirt poor. They have no money whatsoever.

"But you actually see people start to transform. They come in shrivelled up and after some time they start to blossom.

"We also find ourselves in a situation in this hot job market, where employers are contacting us looking for workers."

Madsen said they often find volunteer positions for people to help them learn how to work with others. "You have to remove the barriers before they look for work."

She said success is measured by the number of people coming in to Pathways and how they move forward.

She said Pathways tries to keep them focused on employment as they work out some of their barriers, including housing, welfare, detox and medical issues. "Once we see that they are stabilized we work with people to move into training or employment."

Madsen said that since 2002, nearly 7,000 people have benefited from their services and that there were 24,000 visits throughout the year. "Sometimes they'll come in several times, use the computer, and see an employment counsellor."

More than 600 people are referred annually to employers, employment programs and related community services.

However, Madsen said many have trouble keeping their jobs, although Pathways doesn't have specific numbers. "We have a number of people who are case-managed [and] they have problems retaining jobs. That's one of the challenges."

TTS executive-director Ross Gentleman said in an interview that the society was started in 1994 largely to train at-risk youth for the construction industry. "Other demands became apparent and we had to add new programs. That's how Pathways was created. We extended it to the chronically unemployed, which is the larger social issue in the Downtown Eastside.

"Pathways is remarkable in that it's street level and presents the option of employment right there in a prominent place in the neighbourhood."

Gentleman also said the program now largely caters to men over 40 with modest employability skills.

Gentleman agreed that many have trouble keeping their jobs, although they tracked 75 people who found work through TTS's Job Shop program last year and found that all 75 were still working after 12 weeks.

"We only count them as employed if they're working 12 weeks later. Certainly, some haven't worked out. But all of those [in Job Shop] were working.

"But Job Shop is more intense counsellor-supported. A counsellor works with them daily to encourage them to pursue job opportunities that are suitable for them."

Madsen said the nearby Carnegie Centre is often called the living room of the Downtown Eastside. "It's a great place to hang out and [people] feel safe there and they aren't judged.

"We consider ourselves the office of the Downtown Eastside. We're focused on getting them to work."

She said TTS gets its funding from Service Canada and often has fundraising events, including the latest called Share your Lovin' Soul, a dance and auction February 9 at the Maritime Labour Centre.

Madsen also said that while finding work is difficult enough, many of the people they help don't have enough money to buy bus tickets to get to interviews, while others can't afford hard hats or work boots needed at construction job sites.

Meanwhile, Lana Cullis, Villanueva's employment counsellor at Pathways, said in an interview that Villanueva has been through a difficult time but that "she's a very strong person who inspires those around her."

She said that when she started counselling her in January 2007, Villanueva didn't have the qualifications to find a meaningful job to provide for herself and her children. "Then she did a six-month program in employment counselling."

Another person who was greatly helped by TTS is Peter Huston, who returned to Canada in 2007 after spending a year in a U.S. prison.

The 50-year-old Huston said in an interview that both the Salvation Army -- which helped him with meals and a place to stay -- and Pathways helped him get back on track.

"I went to Pathways to use the computer and I talked to Ray Yee [an employment counsellor]. He got on the phone, helped me get a resume together, and put me in touch with an employment referral place. I'm now working as a framer with a construction company."

Huston, who went through a substance abuse program in prison, arrived back in Canada with just the clothes on his back. "They [Pathways] were very supportive. They sat down with me and were very helpful. It made me feel very wonderful. I'm blessed to have run into Ray Yee."

Terry Collins, 56, is a longtime resident of the Downtown Eastside who also credits Pathways with getting him work.

"This place really helped," he said in an interview. "There's lots of respect and empathy."

Collins, who has homeless for much of the past two years, now works two part-time jobs, one in shipping and receiving at the Army & Navy Department Store and the other in reception at Vancouver's Insite safe injection site. "It's been over two years since I worked," he said. "I had a motorcycle accident and I was unemployable. I fell into this funk and I needed something to kickstart my thinking. And that's what they provided.

"They gave me a list of places to check, computer access and some good advice. It was emotionally uplifting. You know they're there to support you. And that was the number one thing for me."

bmorton@png.canwest.com

© (c) CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc.

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