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Workers leave welfare behind

A Largo program helps the hardest-to-employ welfare recipients and, ultimately, the community.

Every entry-level job in the Pinellas County parks system is filled for the first time in 16 years. "Every single vacancy," stressed Diana Kyle, director. That is an accomplishment in a tight labor market.

One reason for the full roster is welfare reform. More specifically, welfare reform through a program called Enclaves at Abilities of Florida, based in Largo. Enclaves has placed 32 former welfare recipients with the parks system. They weed flower beds, clean restrooms, rake seaweed. Their jobs are full time with benefits.

"We are happy to have all our vacancies filled," said Kyle, who supervises 13 parks that draw 16-million visitors a year.

Greg LeCroy, 36, is an Enclaves client who filled one of the park vacancies. He works on the crew at Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs. Some days he opens the park gates at 7 a.m., puts the flags up and makes sure the restrooms are unlocked. His daily duties consist of cleaning restrooms, mowing and weeding. Other days he closes the park when the sun sets, about 8:45 p.m.

LeCroy, who lives in Tarpon Springs, is a single parent, the father of four boys and one girl. He has a ninth-grade education. He ended up on welfare when it became impossible to keep his job as a cook in a nursing home and take care of his children.

"I feel like I wouldn't have gotten on with the county if I didn't have a chance to prove myself," LeCroy said of Enclaves' boost. "I never in my life would have been making the kind of money I'm making now."

LeCroy makes $7.82 an hour and has full benefits. His children remain on Medicaid for their health care; day care is arranged by Enclaves but paid for by the county. LeCroy is working on a high school equivalency certificate and begins a course on irrigations systems this month to increase his chances for higher pay and a chance to advance. Enclaves pushes clients to plan for the future.

The county parks system is one of four employers in Pinellas County participating in Enclaves, which began late last year. The others are Home Shopping Network and Bayfront-St. Anthony's Health Care in St. Petersburg, and Morton Plant Mease Health Care in Clearwater and Dunedin.

The Enclaves program is based on the blueprint set by Abilities, its parent organization, which trains disabled people and helps them find work so they can be as self-sufficient as possible.

As the name suggests, Enclaves seeks to carve a niche within a business for welfare recipients moving into the work force. The program coordinator and transition coaches take care of needs outside the job, such as day care or transportation. That frees businesses from dealing with those details, and the employee is ready to work when he or she walks in the door.

"Abilities has functioned as an agency since 1959 targeting people with disabilities," said Tom McKone, Enclaves coordinator. "We took an excellent idea and superimposed it on welfare to work.

"We have just branched out to serve people with economic disabilities."

Enclaves clients are the hardest-to-employ welfare recipients in WAGES, Florida's welfare reform program, and 85 percent of them are women. As they exhaust opportunities in WAGES and cutoff dates for government aid approach, these recipients must find work. Enclaves operates under a federal grant obtained by the Pinellas County Workforce Development Board. Strict guidelines must be followed in enrolling clients. Success with the clients is required or funding is lost, according to McKone.

"Of the people enrolled, we are expected to have 60 percent have jobs 180 days later," he said.

Tonvia Davis, 24, qualified for Enclaves because she has five children and has been receiving government payments, food stamps and health services through Medicaid. She joined Enclaves at the beginning of the year and worked first in a part-time job with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Now Davis is a full-time worker in the Environmental Services Department at St. Anthony's Hospital in St. Petersburg. She does cleanup work in the hospital's emergency room.

"It's a good program. It helped me get off welfare," Davis said. "You can make more with a job than being at home."

Davis rises early every morning to get herself and the five kids ready to catch a taxi between 6 and 6:15 a.m. Enclaves pays for the taxi, which takes the family from their home in the Childs Park neighborhood in St. Petersburg to day care, where the children, ages 2 through 7, stay. Then it is on to St. Anthony's Hospital, 1200 Seventh Ave. N, for Davis' 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. shift. She arrives at the hospital about 7:30 a.m. each day.

Davis empties needle boxes at the bed stations and waste cans. She also removes the red garbage bags that hold waste and require special disposal. She cleans bathrooms, refills paper towel dispensers, shines the ER floor and wipes spatters off the walls.

"I like Environmental Services. I'm enjoying it," Davis said. "The benefits are good here. I make $6.50 an hour. That's good.

"My kids are better off with me working and happier. They get everything they need."

Perhaps the best indication of how valuable the program is to Davis and ultimately to the community is the future she sees. "If I stay here, eventually I will move up." One possible option is a nursing program.

Only part of the program's job is done when clients start their jobs. McKone has four transition coaches in his program who work with clients. "All clients get a visit from a member of the staff every day," McKone said. If not every day, then four out of five.

"That is why Enclaves has been moderately successful. We have cell groups of people and our coaches can go out and visit six or seven at a time."

The tally to date for Enclaves since its beginning is 72 clients placed, and 55 still employed. "Not all of them make it," McKone said. But the program is ready to try with any client who qualifies.

"From my point of view, the program has been phenomenal," said Kyle, the parks director. "The clients we are dealing with are the hardest to serve, which means they haven't had a job in a long time. We have to work with them to teach them how to work again."

But do not accuse Kyle, McKone or any of the other employers of forcing businesses into social work.

"We treat them as any other applicants who come in," said Kerry Thomas, director of Environmental Services at Bayfront-St. Anthony's Health Care.

Some concessions are made. For example, Enclaves clients are more likely to draw a day shift at the Home Shopping Network if they don't have access to day care for children in the evenings. In such situations, Enclaves works with the employer. Sometimes the night shift is preferred.

"The group (Enclaves) did spend quite a bit of time accommodating schedules of women who couldn't afford day care who worked at night, or moms who needed to be off at the time school was out," said David Gebhart, vice president of human resources staffing. Home Shopping Network has three Enclaves clients.

The jobs Enclaves obtains for its clients are "absolutely not" makework, McKone said. Hospital rooms always need to be cleaned, public parks must be kept up and telephones need to be answered at Home Shopping Network.

Laura Breedlove, 30, of Largo is making the most of the second chance she got through Enclaves. The single parent of two children is a three-year welfare recipient with a felony record. Breedlove wrote bad checks and stole from Wal-Mart, where she worked. The felony made it difficult for her to use her certified nursing certificate. Enclaves turned her in a new direction. She now works full time at Taylor Park in Largo.

"I wouldn't have picked a park," Breedlove said, "but I love it. I appreciate being given a second chance, a way to prove myself."