Schooling ex-felons in the art of the job interview

“I want to be like her when I grow up,” beams Carol Dove, a program administrator with Towards Employment when asked about the volunteer work Judson Manor resident Virginia “Ginnie” Havens does at the agency.

A lot of people want to be like Ginnie. And it’s easy, because she continues to inspire both the staff and clients of Towards Employment (TE), a non-profit agency formed in 1976 that assists disadvantaged adults in Greater Cleveland to achieve and maintain self-sufficiency through employment.

When she’s not busy taking classes at Case Western Reserve University, or enjoying the cultural advantages of University Circle with her husband, George, Ginnie is at TE’s downtown Cleveland headquarters, conducting mock interviews with the agency’s clients, many of whom have multiple felonies. The spry 86-year-old coaches clients through the basic interview process, utilizing a firm, yet gentle approach. She inspires them to open up and learn to present themselves in a positive light.

“We’ve all made mistakes,” says Ginnie. “Everyone deserves the chance to start a new life.”

Due in part to Ginnie’s volunteer efforts, in 2011 alone, 424 individuals gained long-term, permanent work, overcoming the barriers of poverty, public assistance, criminal backgrounds, lack of a high school diploma or GED, unstable housing or other significant barriers.

Ginnie’s path to Towards Employment actually began with the former Cleveland Works and its late founder, David Roth. He inspired the former high school English teacher to get involved in 1989. When that agency closed, she transitioned to TE in 2004.

“She was tough,” remembers Gary Larkins, an ex-offender who met Ginnie 10 years ago through Cleveland Works, and currently serves as a case manager at TE. “I spent about an hour with her. She really helps you think outside of the box. I came to Cleveland Works looking for factory work, but she encouraged me to get back into social work. So, here I am!”

“I have to be hard on people because I’ll never see them again,” says Ginnie. She believes her background in education helps. “It brings another dimension to the work I do.”

When observing Ginnie working with a TE client named Ernestine, she’s definitely tough, but not in a way that causes clients to shut down.

“You can’t allow nervousness to harm your answers,” Ginnie instructs. “You have to mean what you say and be honest. Take every question as an opportunity to sell your skills.”

She encourages Ernestine to be upbeat and to emphasize the positive – where she is going, not where she’s been.

“I like your answers,” says Ernestine, “They’re so easy and natural.”

After an hour with Ginnie, Ernestine is sitting up straight and has a list of 20 or more skills she can sell during an interview and add to her resume.

“It’s fun to be interviewed, to talk about yourself,” Ginnie smiles as Ernestine smiles back in agreement. ” Thank you Mrs. Havens!” she beams. “This was so helpful!”

Towards Employment is always looking for volunteers. Ginnie is TE’s number one cheerleader, always singing the praises of the staff and sharing with others the selfless gratification she feels giving back to the organization and its clients.

To get involved with Towards Employment, visit www.towardsemployment.org or email tpeterson@towardsemployment.org.

“These people are very much in need,” believes Ginnie. “It’s a worthwhile commitment.”

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