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Sunday, Jun 4, 2023

Van Nuys Agency Works to Deepen Labor Pool

Barbara Bali is a full-time director at Vesper House, a sober living facility in Van Nuys, and a part-time intern at Cri Help, a North Hollywood rehabilitation center. She’s also a recovered drug addict with an extensive criminal record – the kind of job candidate most employers would think twice about before hiring. But the 51-year-old had an advantage over others in similar circumstances: She is completing the apprenticeship program at Center for Living and Learning, a Van Nuys agency where the “unhireable” can gain the skills to become contributing members of society. “Being at the Center for Living and Learning was a really fulfilling experience,” said Bali. “When I was working as an apprentice and where I work now, I give it my all because they gave me a chance. I make sure to go above and beyond.” The center was founded in 2001 and provides vocational training to those who would otherwise face barriers to employment. Its apprenticeship program goes a step beyond classroom training and actually gives people a job. Recruits are referred to the program from local non-profits, drug treatment centers and prisoner reentry programs. Funding constraints limit the number of participants, called apprentices, so candidates are carefully evaluated to assure they can really benefit from the program. Those that are not hired use the Job Readiness, a free job search service, and the training programs at the center. An apprenticeship lasts 12 to 18 months and gives people a paying job and training in computer and office skills. Apprentices start at minimum wage. In order to give apprentices real-world experience, they perform all the office and call center jobs at the center. Making a salary The executive director of the center, Maria Alexander, is a recovered heroin addict whose addiction had left her homeless. She began the apprenticeship program in 2002, and with the help of the center was able to rent an apartment, get legal help and regain custody of her children. In her job as executive director, Alexander faces the constant non-profit challenge of funding. The primary source of funding at the center is car donations, which have been steadily decreasing year by year. Prior to the 2006 IRS change in vehicle donation requirements, the center pulled in more than $1.8 million in car donations but the car donations now bring in a little more than $300,000 annually. To diversify funding sources, Alexander launched the center’s All About You telephone answering and customer service center, which contracts through other agencies for work. The program currently employs seven apprentices. Jobs include clerical work, phone operations and office management duties. Clients include the San Fernando Valley Economic Advisory Council and In Depth Appraisals, a jewelry appraisal business in Studio City. “We’re trying to earn our money instead of just begging for donations,” said Alexander. Kenn Phillips, board member of the economic advisory council, said that before contracting with All About You the attendance at the group’s seminars had been dropping. Now the numbers are picking up because of All About You’s efforts in actively reaching out to people by phone and email. “This is a wonderful alternative for smaller businesses to help their company grow by untraditional marketing. They can save time and resources by farming out all the extra responsibilities to All About You,” he said. Their goal is to have the All About You program bring in more than $20,000 a month, which Alexander said is realistic but may take a year or two to achieve. The center certainly has the labor pool to handle growth. “It’s just a matter of marketing and getting customers who want a good service but are also interested in giving back to the community,” Alexander said. “Of course the first goal for the customer is to have top notch service.” The center has a vast network of nonprofit allies in the Valley that hire graduated apprentices or may refer clients to the program. The center also refers apprentices to these non-profits for extra services such as legal help or clothes for a job interview. Cary Nadler, board member and former president at the Vesper House, said he has seen tremendous growth in Bali since he hired her as a director. He added that the sobriety house’s success rate has increased since she started. “People like Barbara are an integral part of the program at the Vesper House,” Nadler said. “She has excelled and continues to push further by furthering her education.”

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