At the end of its first year, a program to assist single mothers and others in the territory facing the economic impact of federal welfare reform is proving that old adage, "Nothing succeeds like success."
Women Excel, designed to motivate and train welfare recipients to take their place in the competitive working world, began on St. Thomas last year. It has been so successful that the program, administered by the not-for-profit New Image Foundation, is being expanded to St. Croix.
In addition, a new program will be introduced in mid-September on both islands for women who have had long-term work and are looking for a career change. Called Excel Entrepreneur Plus, it includes information on starting a business, and on export and procurement services. Class sizes are kept small to ensure individualized attention.
The success of the Women Excel program also led to a Youth Excel program conducted over the summer on St. Thomas.
"We are delighted by the way the community has embraced us," New Image executive director Cynthia Jerry says. "We look forward to getting involved on St. Croix as well."
Women Excel provides customized training for young women who want to enhance their workplace skills. Among the topics covered in the intensive 12-week course are employment issues, customer relations, oral communication, personal appearance and multiculturalism.
The program is funded by the Labor Department and by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, administered locally by the Diocese of the Virgin Islands.
The Youth Excel program, co-sponsored by the Labor Department and New Image, was "the first time we have reached out to the youth," Jerry says.
"It was a success because of the cooperation from both students and parents," she adds.
Women Excel functions as a kind of satellite office for the University of the Virgin Islands Small Business Development Center, according to Jerry. "We opened this as a free service administered jointly with the university and the SBDC," she says.
The program's business focus is aimed at members of the community who have been underserved in the past, particularly those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and who can benefit from the welfare-to-work initiative.
The Women Excel job placement rate for the first year was 84 percent of those completing the program, and job retention at the end of the first year is at 72 percent. Jerry attributes this high success rate in part to the benefits of on-the-job training where the employer has the final say on whether to keep an individual.
"Since both Labor and Human Services are employment-driven," Jerry says, "we work through them for placement."
The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is not only continuing to fund the program in its second year but increasing its support significantly. The agency's administrators "were impressed by our activities during the first year, and have increased their funding by 300 percent," Jerry says.
Thanks to funding from CCHD, the center has been able to develop its computer lab and services, including Internet access.
Further information about the Excel programs may be obtained by calling 777-8883.