Connections for the Homeless celebrated the launch of its new “Learn and Earn” program at Found restaurant in downtown Evanston Monday night.

The gathering honored the Jerome Mirza Foundation for its major grant that enabled the full launch of the program designed to help motivated individuals experiencing homelessness to select careers, go back to school and build new lives.

“We had been starting up Learn and Earn very gradually,” said Paul Selden, executive director of Connections. “But with the foundation’s help, we suddenly had the resources to put the program in place very rapidly for those in need.”

Selden said Candace Mirza, daughter of Jerome Mirza and a foundation board member, “immediately understood the potential” and made the grant ot Connections last October.

Monday night, 60 clients, volunteers, staff members and donors gathered to celebrate the rapid progress made on the program.

Learn and Earn adds education to Connections’ array of services so that homeless clients from across the North Shore can move into careers with sufficient earning potential to sustain long-term housing stability.

Ann de Cruz, the program coordinator, says, “We now offer career search assistance, tutoring support, mentors, and access to a growing array of partner organizations who provide professional training and development opportunities for our clients.”

Among the organizations participating are Oakton Community College, CDL Mega-Trucking School, Int-Pro Associates, and Inspiration Corporation.

Sue Loellbach, Connections’ director of resource development, says the goal is “to have 30 clients enrolled in Learn and Earn by the fall and 50 enrolled by July of 2014.”

At the celebration, three Learn and Earn participants recounted their stories.

Cecilia Brooks, who experienced an episode of homelessness after the death of a close relative, is in learning to be a hemodialysis technician at the Tukiendorf Training Institute.

LaDeitra Wallace, who has been a single mother since the age of 17 and has experienced several episodes of homelessness, is now, at the age of 21, working, completing her education, and exploring career paths that will provide stability for her and her child.

Reginald Stewart was already seeking to increase his income potential by going to truck driving school, when a house fire destroyed his home. Connections is helping him with shelter, and through Learn and Earn, he is completing his certification as he moves back towards self-sufficiency.

Ms. Mirza said the Jerome Mirza Foundation, established by her father, selected Learn and Earn for support “because we felt that Connections has the experience and the expertise to make a success of this much needed type of program. My father had a very strong work ethic and a belief that learning was at the foundation of all success. I believe he would be very proud to help anyone who wanted to earn and learn their way out of homelessness.”

“For us, ending homelessness is ultimately about housing—getting people housed, keeping them housed. Learn and Earn is the key to helping people maintain housing on the North Shore” says Selden.

“To be housed on the North Shore, a person has to be able to participate in the mainstream economy; and to do that, a person needs job skills, life skills, and an understanding of how all the pieces fit together,” he added.

“Access to education,” Selden said, “combined with work experience and mentoring, will provide Connections’ participants the best possible chance to move from homelessness to active participation in the community. We are really grateful that the Jerome Mirza Foundation believes this as well.”

Top: Connections clients Reginald Stewart and LaDeitra Wallace of Evanston with Candace Mirza and Paul Selden.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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