Eckerd Connects workforce development breaks down barriers

A woman sits and uses a medical computer station.

Three years ago, Dasmine Wright was a single mom working low-paying jobs who could barely afford her family’s needs. She wanted to find higher-paying, more fulfilling work, but without a college degree or an idea of a career path to follow, she didn’t know where to start.

Today, the 27-year-old is a software engineer at a Fortune 500 company. She holds two IT certifications, aspires to specialize in cybersecurity engineering and is working to save up for a house in the Columbus, Ohio area that she and her two young children can call home.

Making workforce development accessible

She credits the major change in her circumstances to the Columbus branch of Eckerd Connects, a national nonprofit program that connects at-risk and low-income young adults to the world of work through training, skills development, career exploration and internships as well as support for GED attainment and post-secondary education. Eckerd Connects’ services fill particularly vital needs within Columbus’ 43211 zip code. About a quarter of the residents in this downtown area are unemployed and more than half live in poverty. CVS Health is partnering with Eckerd Connects to fund its Columbus programming through Health Zones, a community investment program from CVS Health to support local groups offering critical services to increase health equity and address the communities’ most pressing health and economic challenges.

“Living paycheck to paycheck to barely scrape by, and accepting poverty is a mindset I learned early in life,” Dasmine explained. “Eckerd Connects offered me resources and support to break out of that lifestyle and helped me learn to flourish — for myself and for my kids. There have been lots of steps to create that change, but each has been worthwhile and motivated me to keep going.”

Dasmine entered the program after hearing about it from Franklin County Jobs and Family Services. With the guidance of a designated coach and a workforce development specialist, she participated in workforce skills and training seminars, explored possible career paths and received internships in the real estate and information technology (IT) industries. Her internship as a school IT manager led her to discover her passion for computers and software. The Eckerd Connects team helped Dasmine chart a path to becoming a software engineer, from determining what kind of education and certifications she would need to finding and funding the coding program she chose to attend, and later, helping her find her first job in IT.

Building careers by providing flexible solutions

Monica Broadnax, Eckerd Connects’ workforce development specialist, is a mentor to Dasmine and scores of other young people she works to place in jobs and internships. She says career coaching and job placements are only half of the equation. “We see so much talent and potential that, in many cases, our clients have never seen in themselves,” Monica said. According to Monica, real personal needs and circumstances — inability to pay for education, childcare needs, lack of transportation to jobs or even a criminal record from years past — often make people discount their possibilities of building a career. “But by getting to know the person and helping them to either lift or navigate around those barriers, we open up space for them to think about what they may be passionate about and what they want out of life,” she explained. “That’s when we see people’s lives change.”

This approach held true for Dasmine. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Dasmine lost her job in a mass layoff and grew concerned about paying the bills while caring for her kids at home; Eckerd Connects helped her land a job interview with Aetna to work flexible hours remotely as a customer service specialist. She nailed it and got the job.

At another point, Dasmine’s car broke down, spurring fears about not being able to get to an internship. Eckerd helped find and fund a quick turnaround car repair, preventing her from missing a shift. When she decided to enroll in a three-month intensive coding program, she worried about supporting her family with reduced hours to earn income. She enrolled in an Eckerd Connects-hosted financial literacy course to help her reevaluate her savings and spending habits, allowing her to stretch her funds to cover those months.

“The team at Eckerd Connects has been by my side, helping me build my own version of success and kept me moving through the darker moments when I otherwise might have given up,” Dasmine said. “I’m not sure where the rest of my journey will lead but feel confident that the only way is up.”