“I’m learning to be more appreciative,” Latonya reflects. “Having food is not something that I took for granted, but it’s something I didn’t realize was such a big deal. I’m learning that for someone somewhere, it is a really big deal.”
Latonya has worked for Hampton Roads Workforce Council (HRWC; formerly Opportunity, Inc.) for 13 years. As deputy director for Virginia Career Works Hampton Roads Region, she interacts with participants in Women in Skilled Careers (WISC), a 9–12-week program launched to create a pipeline of skilled workers for in-demand industries such as shipbuilding and repair in areas such as marine welding, pipefitting, electrical, coatings, sheet metal fabrication and outside machinist.
The women in the program come from all walks of life. Some are coming out of situations of homelessness or domestic violence. Some continue to work their regular jobs in addition to participating in the training courses, which leads to early mornings, late nights and sacrificing time from their families. “When you know someone really wants something, they have to work a little bit harder to get it,” Latonya says. “They know at the end of this, they could have a really good paying job and a skillset that is needed in this area. It’s going to help them change their life.”
Although the participants are there to learn, Latonya shares that ultimately the women teach her a lot simply by sharing their stories or voicing their concerns. “Once you start working with people, they start sharing,” Latonya explains. “And you realize they need more than just what you have to offer. You start to consider what other resources you can bring in. If we all take something that we’re great at, we can blend it together to help the people that we’re serving.”
For instance, in one group, a woman shared that she was receiving benefits for transportation, and another needed childcare and housing benefits, which sparked interest among the other participants. The Virginia Career Works team reached out to a partner, the Virginia Department of Social Services, and they were able to assist others in the group as well. Virginia Career Works also invited Wells Fargo to come in to discuss financial literacy topics, such as making wise decisions about investing and paying off debt.
One remark that Latonya hears often is how expensive it is to eat healthy. Some of the participants are receiving food stamps but still aren’t earning enough income to provide healthy, consistent meals for their families.
Understanding that job insecurity is one of the root causes of food insecurity, the Foodbank utilized funding from Feeding America to partner with the HRWC through Virginia Career Works Hampton Roads Region to connect individuals experiencing food insecurity with resources to launch or advance their careers. The Foodbank launched onsite SNAP application assistance to ensure that all individuals who meet the requirements and are interested can receive the benefits. The Foodbank also began supplying weekly bags of nutritious foods (fresh produce, frozen meats and shelf stable items) that can be easily incorporated to create a meal, along with breakfasts and healthy snacks. In addition, the Foodbank began offering nutrition education to participants, with lessons focused on preparing healthy meals on a budget.
“If you’re in a household, depending on how old your children are, to know that every week you’re going to be getting something to offset that cost… it’s absolutely beneficial,” Latonya says.
Latonya feels strongly about being able to assist individuals in any way she can, even if it’s simply sharing information with them. “I always tell my team, when someone walks through the door, don’t ever turn them away without anything,” she says. “Even if we’re giving them a name, a location, a number … give them something because we don’t know what it took for them to make it through our doors, whether it was an hour-and-a-half bus trip. We’re going to give them something so that they can say the trip was worth it.”