Over a decade ago, lifelong Detroit resident Paul Johnson III faced the economic crisis [like many others] and he had two choices: give up or push through beyond his own economic turmoil. Johnson decided the latter and hopes to encourage others to do the same when facing their own issues.
“I’ve had moments in time where I haven’t had a job because I graduated when the economy hit rock bottom in 2005; just having no money and feeling at times of hopelessness — those were moments that defines you. I decided to push on,” Johnson said.
Today, Johnson credits his teachers as being a major part of his success story because he is now in the position to help others thrive, too, in a meaningful way, especially when crises arise.
On Nov. 20, Johnson graduated with his 19 other cohorts virtually after receiving Community Health Corps [CHC] worker credentials. They graduated as CHC peer counselors and case managers to provide most at-risk Detroit residents the resources they need. For some residents, that need could look like food insecurities, for others they need their power restored in their homes or to financial resources to keep their homes. The graduates are there to help them find the way.
The inaugural CHC graduation ceremony is through the Workforce Development & Detroit at Work program. The training [that the cohorts graduated from] took place October through November. They learned eight core competencies including taking written tests; role playing; group presentation and underwent a 40-hour internship/on the job training – all to prepare them when they visit at-risk areas in Detroit.
The CHC will help connect Detroiters to these and other services:
· Basic necessities
· Help with your home
· Health Programs
The program will be funded initially with $3.5 million in federal CARES Act funds, which will send community health workers and peer counselors door-to-door in Detroit to identify families in need.
Mayor Mike Duggan announced the program in August.
“What we have been finding is that too many of our residents in need of the available services and programs offered simply aren’t aware of them and don’t know where to go for help,” said Mayor Duggan on the city website. “The CHC team will help identify the needs within each household and connect family members with the appropriate programs. They also will assess the talent and skills of each family member for a referral to Detroit at Work training and employment programs.”
Johnson, 39, a case manager said that he is looking forward to assisting the residents in need in the city, and he’s always had an interest in helping others because of his upbringing.
“I got started in human service by seeing my dad and my mom — my mom is a public school teacher and my dad he worked for the state of Michigan helping people with disabilities find employment or go to school,” Johnson said. “I saw their work ethic of helping people. My dad — even though we were well off — he would take me to soup kitchens and different community events so I could understand what people were going through.”
Developing a work ethic and empathy for people experiencing personal challenges is something Johnson does not just show, but he’s lived, too. Johnson has overcome health challenges, learning disabilities, and a speech impediment that he didn’t let define him.
Johnson recognized also being privileged to have access to services that fixed his challenges. And Johnson said it is his “obligation” to help others gain access to those services, too. Johnson has a background in working in the human service field for 12 years, and he helped create a Medicaid-eligible nursing home transition program to help seniors live more independently.
“That is what motivated me,” Johnson added. “I want to make a difference. … I live in the city of Detroit and I see the generational poverty. I want to be able to elevate people [who don’t know about the resources] and show compassion regardless of their social economic status. It just takes one person to believe in you.”
That one person [among many in attendance at the graduation] believed in the graduates like Sheilah Clay, who spoke during the virtual ceremony and congratulated the graduates. Clay said that her memory of the graduates left an inedible impression on her.
“When you expressed an interest in being a part of this team I asked you questions about why you are in this field and why you wanted to work in [CHC],” Clay said. “You were authentic. … In the interviews I have seen you unfold over the last four weeks … the real deal is sitting here right now getting ready to graduate. … Thank you for your energy and your passions to this work.”
CHC will function as a partner entity within the Detroit at Work program, according to information from the city website, and staff will report to executive director Sheilah Clay (retired president and CEO of Neighborhood Services Organization (NSO) who joined Detroit at Work in Aug. 2019), all under the council of an advisory board.
Nicole Sherard-Freeman, executive director, Workforce Development & Detroit at Work, said that the graduates have a role they are going to play in “rebuilding Detroit’s middle class.”
“That is a vision, it may seem like an improbable one right now, but that is how important that is — how much impact overtime the value that your work is going to bring to Detroiters who need it the most,” Sherard-Freeman said, adding that this program stemmed from conversations she had between “folks that believed delivering services to Detroiters most vulnerable would be the only way to continually lower poverty statistics in Detroit.”
Sherard-Freeman said that the initial idea did not have a framework and there were a lot of questions in the air.
“We weren’t sure who we were going to hire at the time; weren’t sure where the funding was going to come from and we didn’t know who our team would be … thank you for the work you put in the last several weeks,” she said.
Detroit’s Deputy Mayor Conrad Mallett, Jr. also said that he and Sherard-Freeman have worked closely in this process to support the program and its graduates.
“When the mayor gave me this particular assignment I have to say deep within my soul I understood this was going to be a chance for me, properly supported by people like you, to make a systemic change in the lives of the people,” he said. “There will be occasions where I walk with you to the homes of the persons we seek to serve.”
Community Healthcare Worker and recent graduate La’Tice Covington, 38 of Detroit, has a servant’s heart. She said that she knows what it is like to struggle and be a single mom trying “to figure out how to get one here and get one there.”
She has also been on disability for 10 years now.
“[I’ve been] teetering and tottering around here trying to figure out what to do with my inabilities,” Covington said, adding that her family friend told her about the Community Healthcare program and she signed up at her first chance. “I was so surprised they called me back immediately … I cried during my interview.”
Covington said that it’s her mission to help others and the reason why she wants to do this job is because she wants to help give those a chance and as a lifelong Detroiter her entire life living in different parts of the city, she sees where the needs are.
“I’ve lived everywhere from the westside, eastside, southwest — I had a lot of exposure to different cultures, scenarios, high crime rate areas, low crime rate areas,” Covington said. “I have always been interested in helping people. I am like the resource guide [for my community]. “Wherever I go the information I obtained [I am] always able to use it just to help [others] get through our struggles.”
For more information on the program visit https://detroitmi.gov/news and search “Community Health Corps vulnerable residents.”