Four years ago, Darlene Dunn was working at Bank of America, but dreaming of a career that would allow her to be more of a servant, particularly to underprivileged individuals and those whose lives had taken difficult turns. Driven by her Christian faith and an interest in helping people live productive lives, she started looking for jobs at nonprofit organizations.

Her search led quickly to Our Daily Bread Employment Center, a place where Darlene had volunteered with her high school-aged daughter years earlier. At the time, they had served meals without thinking much about the center’s employment programs. But those programs are where Darlene soon found her professional home, first as a job specialist and now as the job readiness trainer for Work4Success.

“One of the best kept secrets here is this program,” Darlene says. “Most people identify Our Daily Bread with the food. So many people who come here say, ‘I didn’t even know about this!'”

Shifting the program model

But the program is not a secret at all. Until 2020, Work4Success was an intensive, two-week program through which clients would learn a set of key skills, from preparing a resume to using online job boards, that help them prepare for and apply to new jobs. Early this year, Darlene helped launch a streamlined curriculum at two Catholic Charities sites – Our Daily Bread Employment Center and St. Edward’s Workforce Development Center – aimed at getting clients to work more quickly.

COVID-19 quickly upended these plans, making in-person classes and valuable volunteer support impossible. But the modules developed under the streamlined curriculum proved adaptable to an online environment, and this summer, Darlene and others in Catholic Charities’ workforce development programs began offering classes virtually. The program started with online classes on resume writing and job searching taught by specialized staff, and longtime volunteers returned to provide one-on-one coaching in virtual “breakout rooms.”

“I still like it because I’m still able to help people,” Darlene said. “We’ve just come to the reality that things are going to be different going forward – and we really don’t know how long it’s going to be different.”

Darlene Dunn in a Work4Success classroom — before COVID-19 shifted courses online

Online or in-person, the approach to Work4Success remains constant. As clients engage with the program, staff help identify barriers that might prevent them from landing a good job, and connect them to wraparound supports – whether that means finding a decent interview suit, or appropriate mental and behavioral health services.

When Darlene started at Our Daily Bread Employment Center, she quickly came to understand the magnitude of the challenges people face: “So many people who are struggling day to day. So many people with undiagnosed mental illnesses. So many people who were not sure where to turn or who to turn to.”

Darlene, who was Our Daily Bread Employment Center’s employee of the year in 2019, connects easily with clients, who often open up to her.

“We all make mistakes,” she says. “I let them feel free, and I’m not going to look down on them. Some of us travel different roads. … I never want to make this about me – I want to know what I can do for you.”