The Urban Alliance Momentum Neighborhood Employment Solutions Class of June 2016 with program director Brian Parsons (far right).

Earlier this summer, thousands of Kalamazoo-area students graduated. But for a small group, the occasion was particularly momentous. These 16 individuals had reached a milestone in their lives: receiving their "diplomas" from Urban Alliance’s Momentum Neighborhood Employment Solutions program.

The graduates knew this was more than an end to unemployment. It was a new start to a life overcoming multiple barriers to employment, including homelessness, drug use or perhaps a prison record.

While it was an important moment for these individuals, it also presented an opportunity for residents of Kalamazoo County to take note: this was a solution to a community problem. Aside from being a story about individuals, each facing overwhelming struggles, this is a story about quantifiable results from a community that cares.

Everyone is valuable

A week after the graduation, Urban Alliance’s executive director, Luke Kujacznski, reflected on its meaning from his office at Urban Alliance, nestled in the basement of Stockbridge Avenue United Methodist Church in Kalamazoo’s Edison neighborhood.

"The idea that everyone is valuable is fundamental to our work," he said. "Poverty has many forms: physical, spiritual, emotional. Relationships are the key to alleviating emotional poverty."

Urban Alliance serves the most marginalized members of the community by offering employment, housing and outreach programs. "We embrace, engage and empower individuals to better themselves," said Kujacznski. "We’re transforming our community one relationship at a time."

Momentum, just one of many Urban Alliance programs, receives support from a number of funders, including the Kalamazoo Community Foundation. The program is now three years old.

The six-week program teaches a variety of employment skills through 100 hours of classroom instruction and another 100 hours of work experience, followed by six months of mentoring. There are six cohorts a year. To help the students succeed, Urban Alliance works with other nonprofits to provide support systems such as transportation and childcare.

According to Brian Parsons, Momentum’s program director, a unique feature of the program is that 60 percent of the instructors are volunteers, including corporate human resource directors and executives. "Something powerful happens when our students realize leaders from their community are sacrificing their own time to help them succeed," he said.

Refuting stereotypes

Parsons explained how the students have been stigmatized by society, making employment a challenge, "But we have a network of 48 employers who are coming to us looking to hire our graduates."

Kujacznski said, "Society tells a story about these individuals that simply is not true — that with a challenged past, they won’t make good employees. Every time we place one of our graduates, we refute these stereotypes. And we have solid proof that Momentum is working; we have the numbers and the success stories."

He also shared that while there are state programs that pay employers to hire ex-felons, Momentum employers are not paid. "Real change happens for these individuals. The employers recognize that."

Both Kujacznski and Parsons tell compelling stories of lives transformed, and how employed graduates often come back and inspire current students by "honoring them and their struggles."

Urban Alliance works hard for the success of Momentum. "These individuals are worth our best effort," said Kujacznski.