The Grand Rapids-based Women’s Resource Center experienced a surge in demand for its services at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The nonprofit helps women return to the workforce, including those re-entering from jail or prison, and provides essential support for low-income women struggling with the costs of housing, utilities and other basic needs. Twenty months later, the organization has provided services to more than 150 women and is expanding its re-entry program to Ottawa and Muskegon counties. CEO Sandra Gaddy recently discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on women, particularly Black and brown individuals.
What are your priorities heading into 2022?
Unfortunately, COVID is still a priority for so many of us. We continue to support women as we face the economic crisis and challenges as a result of the pandemic. The pandemic has affected women all across the country. In our local economy, many women we’re supporting are struggling to afford basic needs. Many participants are struggling to pay rent, bills and modes of transportation.
Another focus for us in 2022 is implementing an expansion of our New Beginnings program to Ottawa and Muskegon counties. The program launched in 2012 and is a jail-based trauma-informed program that provides workforce and life development services. We’ve had a longtime partnership with the Kent County jail. The purpose is to reduce the recidivism rate and provide access to one-time offenders, as women are so often not treated fairly when they return to the community. They don’t have the same opportunities to seek employment and are treated more harshly than men, especially if these women are Black and brown.
Have you seen a continuation of that initial spike in demand for services from the spring of 2020?
What we are seeing now is women starting to have that comfort level of going back to work, but many are entering the workforce differently. There are so many different factors to unemployment, especially the lack of child care. About 155 women and families have received financial and employment services through the Women’s Resource Center during the pandemic. Individuals may think so many of these family members don’t want to go back to work, but family stability is critically important. One of the things we saw was how many women have left the workforce. These numbers are high, and you just haven’t seen the same rate of men leaving the workforce. We’re working really hard to ensure women coming to WRC get needed skills where they’re lacking.
There’s so much talk about the ‘Great Resignation.’ Are you seeing that phenomenon among the women you serve?
This would not have happened in these numbers if the pandemic did not hit. So many individuals were happy in positions but were working in jobs to make ends meet. Then they were forced to stay home because of the pandemic, they had child care, and they were trying to balance work and educating their children. When you see this, the Great Resignation is such a huge opportunity for women, especially, to rediscover their dreams and goals they had for themselves 10 or 15 years ago. Some women have just not been able to make those dreams a reality maybe because of culture, income or education. This is such an incredible opportunity for these women to skill up.
Are you seeing demand for particular career paths from women you serve?
There’s not a demand for specific careers or pathways, but there is demand in the community. Health care and trades have huge demand. One of the things we focus on helping women rediscover is opportunities in trades. Trades are not for every woman, but — especially for women returning from jail or prison — trades are a tremendous opportunity. We have seen a significant number of women go through that programming. When you think about carpentry, electricians, plumbers, welders, CNC operators, construction: All of those are male-dominated roles. But each one of those fields not only has opportunity for higher wages, but also opportunity for women to become business owners.
How is the child care crisis affecting the people you serve, and are you optimistic about new funding resources to alleviate the pain points?
Access to quality and affordable child care continues to be a challenge for the women we’re serving, but it continues to be challenging for women in the workforce. We do believe the state resources to address this issue will help alleviate stressors for working mothers. We have implemented a daycare voucher program to provide financial assistance to working mothers or those seeking employment. I’m optimistic we’ll see greater access to affordable child care and more diverse opportunities with employers to offer access to quality and affordable child care.
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