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Ithaca foundation boosts job seekers’ connectivity during COVID-19

– By Evan Williams

A grant from the J.M. McDonald Foundation has been enabling Challenge Workforce Solutions to deliver remote job readiness services to participants who are staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Founded in 1968 in Ithaca, New York, Challenge is dedicated to creating pathways to employment for people with disabilities and other barriers.

J.M. McDonald was a retail executive and dairy cattle breeder who settled in Cortland, New York in the 1920s. Shortly before his death in 1956, he established a trust that continues to award grants to various charitable causes primarily in Upstate New York.

The foundation’s grant to Challenge was used to purchase tablets and hotspots for job seekers without reliable, dedicated internet access at their residence. Challenge was able to fulfill all requests for hardware, ensuring full involvement in valuable programming throughout all the phases of lockdown.

One recipient was Isaiah C., who has been swiftly advancing through Challenge’s community-integrated prevocational services and toward its internship-based Employment Training Program (ETP).

“It’s great,” Isaiah said. “I can get on email, or get on Zoom and talk to all my friends.”

Brendan Shaw, Challenge’s Manager of Prevocational Services, said that he’s witnessed Isaiah become more socially engaged through regular virtual meetups, and that he’s also benefitted from taking part in interactive trainings and assessments via Nearpod. “We’ve covered a lot of general work skills and talked about what it will be like once he’s found employment in the community,” Brendan said, “so we really haven’t lost any ground in terms of job readiness.”

Recently, Isaiah has returned to Challenge’s offices in person twice a week, where he has mastered COVID-related safety protocols while learning how to sew masks for Ithaca College students and scan and convert images for Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology. His tablet allows him to stay closely connected with staff and peers on the days he’s at home.

“All of these activities,” said Brendan, “combined with his previous work experiences at the Dryden Café and the Friends of the Library, means that he’s going to be ready to enter ETP and thrive in pretty much any work environment he finds.”