Nonprofit Big Sunday’s employment program is all about working well

The Jewish Journal
September 16, 2016

by Eric Bazak

It’s not unusual for people to dread their jobs — especially if they involve a long commute. But for the unemployed, a Monday morning stuck on the 405 Freeway would be viewed as a small price for the opportunity to work.

That’s why the nonprofit Big Sunday is looking to expand its latest initiative, called Thank God It’s Work! (TGIW). The program temporarily pays people to work at one of the hundreds of sister organizations with which Big Sunday has a relationship.

The program, started roughly a year ago, has put 20 people to work so far, if only temporarily. Big Sunday founder and executive director David Levinson said he hopes to raise $50,000 to keep the program afloat and employ up to 100 workers. He said it has already received $10,000 and another commitment for the same amount.

“One of the beauties is that not only does this provide income, but this provides new training and job skills,” Levinson said. “It can provide introductions to new people and something for people to put on their resumes.

“The biggest surprise is how wonderful it is, and I only wish that we had the funding to be able to find something for somebody every single day, because there are so many people out there who are so grateful to be able to work.”

Generally, Big Sunday, which grew out of a mitzvah day at Temple Israel of Hollywood, pays the workers at a rate of $15 per hour for a total of 30 hours, although some have worked for up to 60 hours.

The concept for TGIW sprouted after an unemployed woman asked Big Sunday to provide her kids with school supplies that she could not afford. She and her kids would later volunteer at Big Sunday, and her struggle to find work inspired the nonprofit to focus on finding people jobs as opposed to just assistance.

“She became someone we began to know, and as time went on, what became clear is that this is somebody who did not want a handout — she wanted to work,” Levinson said.

Since then, 19 others have sought work through TGIW, either working at Big Sunday or an organization Big Sunday believes matches the employee’s skill set, needs and interests. Those seeking help have included people laid off from shrinking industries, immigrants, the elderly, widows, divorcees, people with blemishes on their records and people who have just had bad luck.

One TGIW participant was Bryan Gawron, who asked for help after he went from living in a two-bedroom apartment in the Miracle Mile with his wife and two kids to being homeless in a short span of time. Despite working in a large variety of jobs in Hollywood for more than 25 years, Gawron’s life spiraled when the company he worked for, Motor Entertainment, shut down.

“I thought, ‘I’ve got a 25-year career in Hollywood — of course it won’t be hard to find a job,’ ” he said. “But it was impossible. It was one of those horror stories. I literally sent out 500 to 600 resumes — and not just in Hollywood, but for a variety of things above and below my position —and no luck.”

Gawron, who is not Jewish, could not afford his rent and the family had to move out of the apartment, spending nights transitioning from hotels, motels and shelters as he earned small amounts of money here and there.

When he got connected to Levinson and Big Sunday, they helped pay for his family to stay at a hotel and even for his wife’s car rental for three months so that she could keep driving to work. Eventually, Levinson introduced him to TGIW, and Big Sunday paid for him to work at the Pico Union project,
where he could use his office and spreadsheet skills.

When that term ended after two weeks, Gawron found a full-time job as an office manager for a company, streamlining its office systems. The position has helped him turn things around, as now the family is in transitional housing.

Another participant who has been helped is Susan Reyes, who lived with her family of eight in a homeless shelter for a few years prior to finding their own place.

“We didn’t have money for Christmas and things like that,” she said. “I was looking around and found Big Sunday, and they helped my family with gifts and recently they found me work.”

Through TGIW, she worked at a Boys & Girls Club in Pasadena. Before that job, she had primarily been a stay-at-home mom for 15 years, except for some housekeeping work, so this gave her real work experience performing a number of different tasks. And after her few weeks at the Boys & Girls Club, she found a job at the county hospital as a cashier.

“I feel that getting that help from Big Sunday really helped with my resume and having that experience because it was amazing I got this job,” Reyes said.

Besides the workers themselves, participating organizations also benefit. (The Jewish Journal, where a Panamanian-born former magazine editor and consultant was placed, is among those that have taken part in the program.)

Ruth Stalford, executive director of The Book Foundation in Los Angeles, which promotes literacy activities for children of lower-income families, was eager to accept a worker from TGIW.

“The program is so dignified. When I heard about it, I thought it was such an incredible solution, just a way to help someone with real dignity,” Stalford said. “Everybody wants to work, and organizations like mine are scrappy and we are mostly powered by volunteers, so the idea of having someone come in focused and reliable, and at the end of the day you are helping each other, is fantastic.”

Stalford praised the woman who worked for the organization, a mother hoping to earn enough money to pay for her daughter’s college tuition. Now currently working at three jobs, she assisted with sorting, labeling and boxing books at The Book Foundation.

“I would love to hire her permanently; we just don’t have the funds for that,” Stalford said. “She had such a great attitude and was happy to help out.”

Levinson said Big Sunday will look to find something for anyone who approaches the organization.

“Big Sunday is very much about people,” he said. “We have this very wide net, but at the end of the day, we’re about connecting people, and a lot of that is just sitting down and seeing who would be a good fit where.”

In the end, he said, everyone walks away happy.

“It’s a win-win-win,” Levinson said. “I’ve been doing Big Sunday for a very long time, and for all the things we’ve done, this can be the most gratifying because it’s people helping people to help themselves. It’s everything that we hope to do here.”

(Copyright © 2016 The Jewish Journal)

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