Austin Area Urban League celebrates 40 years of helping people

12:00 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017 Lifestyle
Lakeeta Cadoree, who works for IHOP, with Darnise Jones, workforce and career development manager for the Austin Area Urban League. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Liza Sandoval was released from prison on May 4, 2016. Less than a month later, thanks to help from the Austin Area Urban League, she started her first day of work at Simplicity Lasers.

Sandoval quickly rose from receptionist at the hair removal clinic to become a technician and later its top sales representative. After promotions and raises, she was offered a nice job in Kansas City, Mo., but decided to stay here to enroll as a full-time Austin Community College student with hopes of opening her own clinic someday. She’s also engaged to be married and is pregnant with her first child.

Recently, she was asked to speak at an Urban League graduation ceremony.

“It was a really good feeling,” she says. “I didn’t cry too much. The League is a great resource for a lot of people, you just have to do the legwork. Yes, they helped me get a job, but I’m the one who kept the job. For that, I will always be appreciative.”

Another recent success story for the local Urban League chapter — which will celebrate 40 years of empowering people in need through education, housing and employment during a Sept. 30 gala at the JW Marriott Hotel — is Lakeeta Cadoree. The East Texas native spent 22 years in prison for an offense she committed as a juvenile. Soon after her release into a bewildering new world, an Urban League representative visited her Austin halfway house.

Cadoree took up the rep’s invitation to learn social, computer and interviewing skills. The Urban League then helped her obtain a birth certificate, Social Security card and other IDs. After applying for just two jobs, she signed on as a cook at an IHOP restaurant.

“Ninety days later, I got a raise,” Cadoree says. “Ninety days after that, I got promotion and raise. Six months later, I received another promotion and another raise. Now I’m working with the League to hire folks at the restaurant.”

A woman who helped give these clients a break comes with her own story. Darnise M. Jones moved to Austin from her native New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina. Now Jones serves as an Urban League workforce and career development manager.

“And I’m a product of the League myself,” she says. “In 1996, I enrolled in the Urban League of Technology in New Orleans and completed an intense word processing course. Later I worked with nonprofits and governments, including the Housing Authority of New Orleans client service department as a program manager. I never knew that I would be working with the movement that helped give me this passion.”

Jones is quick to dispel some common assumptions about the Urban League, founded in the early years of the 20th century to advocate for African-Americans and others who had experienced discrimination.

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“People assume we are here only to serve African-Americans,” Jones says. “That has not been the case since the beginning. They think, too, that it’s a civil rights agency filled with attorneys. The founders just wanted to be fair across the board. Whomever you are, when you cross the door sills of Urban League, you will be handled with dignity and respect.”

A little background

Darnise Jones always wanted to help people. She credits her family and faith with nurturing that feeling. After Katrina, Jones poured her energies into raising her three kids who had recently lost their dad (a fourth was away at college).

“Austin was a blessing in disguise,” she says. “It made me see I could live outside New Orleans. And my children taught me that they could adapt to other races and communities. They reminded me that all the things I was teaching them, they could use here.”

Her two sons, Jarred and Gaven, and two daughters, Gyi and Logan, are now in their 20s and are forging ahead with lives and careers. She’s been with the Austin chapter of the Urban League for eight years.

A neighbor attending an Urban League home ownership class told Jones that the group was seeking a person from New Orleans to work with the Katrina population. The neighbor said, “They need you over there.” She received a call from workforce manager Kenneth Mac regarding an employment opportunity. The phone call lasted two hours.

After an interview, she was offered the job of Katrina outreach coordinator.

The Austin League assists 372 active clients, all of them living 200 percent below federal poverty guidelines, some already in the workforce but looking for better jobs.

“We take an informal assessment, then a formal assessment, and get a snapshot of the client’s interests, strengths, weaknesses and desires,” Jones says. “Then we work on technical and interviewing skills, financial literacy, image consulting, cognitive behavioral therapy as well as employment and educational referrals. Some are coming out of prison or long illness, or they just need to build their self-esteem.”

Today, Jones is married to Changa Jones and is working toward a B.S. in human resource management.

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The League also operates hand in hand with similarly tasked groups such as Skillpoint Alliance, Dress for Success, Austin Community College, Goodwill Housing Authority, Travis County and other partners in the Workforce and Education Readiness Continuum, which coordinates efforts to prepare Austin-area residents to enter a competitive job market.

Clients such as Cadoree, 41, might have attended school in prison, but she wasn’t prepared for the workplace or for Austin, which she said was “like being sent to another planet.”

“I left for prison as a child and came back out as a grown woman,” she says. “I was very timid, insecure and unstable. The League taught me a lot of things, like getting health, dental and life insurance, opening saving and checking accounts, which I have, and actually saving, which I’m struggling to do. But I have the knowledge, which is half the battle.”

Cadoree says that the League staff was routinely warm and welcoming.

“That’s what made me stick with them,” she says. “Everything they said they would do, they did it and did it in a timely fashion. Other places, that was not the case. If you seriously want help and being directed to the path of success, by all means come. They are serious about helping people. This is a humble beginning. It’s not the end.”

Sandoval, 37, grew up in Corpus Christi and went to prison for five years while living with a drug problem. She had no idea where to start a new life when she arrived in Austin. Her main helper at the Urban League was Eric Jones.

“He kept up with me,” she says with a smile. “I felt he really put forth an effort to see how I was doing. They work through incentives, like you bring in your paycheck stubs, and they give you H-E-B gift cards. One day, after I’d been working a while, Eric said, ‘Sorry, Liza, you are making too much money. No more gift cards for you!’”

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