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At the annual conference of the California Workforce Association, April 22-24 in San Diego, Saffron Strand’s volunteer program director, Chysandra Nair, received the Outstanding Job Seeker Services Award as one of CWA’s three 2014 Charlie Brown Workforce Professionals of the Year.

For the past five years, Chysandra has volunteered 20 hours per week as program director and served on Saffron Strand’s Board of Directors. In her professional capacity as program director, she has helped the homeless, hard-to-employ, and long-term unemployed members of Saffron Strand gain marketable job skills and get back to work. These vulnerable, chronically unemployed job seekers lived in Richmond, other West Contra Costa communities, and other low-income communities throughout the East Bay.

With Chysandra’s help, they re-entered the workforce in jobs they enjoyed and worked hard to keep. Most have sustained employment for 2 years or more. Chysandra has performed this volunteer work on top of a full-time job as a police dispatcher for the City of Richmond.

Chysandra’s professional-quality volunteer effort has gone beyond providing one-on-one training, job coaching, and mentoring for Saffron Strand’s homeless members. She has recognized, respected, and reinforced the dignity of some of most vulnerable and stigmatized residents of low-income California communities and they have responded to her unselfish, caring, and truly helpful professional employment services. Working with Chysandra, they have gained the job skills and work-related social skills to compete and succeed in very competitive local job markets.

The chronically unemployed with whom Chysandra works represent “high risk” clients who repeatedly fail to complete conventional job training programs, find jobs, or sustain employment, despite the best efforts of their case workers or other employment services professionals who try to help them.

Chysandra works directly with Saffron Strand’s homeless members, most of whom are African American. More than half have substance abuse or mental health problems or co-occurring disorders. Nearly a third have criminal records for offences ranging from fraud and prostitution to armed robbery and manslaughter. Thirty percent are parents with dependent children. About one-fifth are young adults,18-24 years of age.

Despite their huge barriers to employment, they want to re-enter the workforce and rebuilt their lives. With Chysandra’s personal encouragement, they become members of Saffron Strand’s non-denominational, non-ideological, intentional community. They come to the professional office space of the Saffron Strand Center in Point Richmond during normal working hours to participate in the “work-ordered day,” building their marketable job skills and providing voluntary, unpaid work to sustain the organization.

After years working with these chronically unemployed and vulnerable but determined job seekers, Chysandra possesses unique professional skills and personal qualities. Despite huge odds against her, she succeeds in helping them get back to work and remain employed. It is these skills and qualities that the CWA recognized through the 2014 Workforce Professional of the Year Award.

Thanks to Chysandra’s efforts, Richmond employers, who in the past had to look outside Richmond and West Contra Costa for skilled workers, have had much better opportunities to find the skills they need in the local pool of increasingly skilled workers. Availability of skilled workers is essential for a community such as Richmond to attract businesses that can offer higher paying jobs.

Chysandra also supports Saffron Strand’s public education and professional training mission, primarily through the Annual Homeless Workforce Conference.

Chysandra has been involved with planning and execution of the Conference from the first one in 2010 with the Fifth Annual Homeless Conference scheduled for June 16-17, 2014. She has been instrumental in providing unique education for the public and specialized training for professionals and others who are trying to help the homeless. In 2013, more than 130 participants from 10 California counties and 8 other states attended the Conference, focusing on the problems and potential of the homeless workforce. Chysandra has helped organize and deliver the only forum nationwide to answer the critical question: How do we help the homeless to get back to work?

Chysandra’s professional-quality voluntary work through the Saffron Strand Center and the Annual Homeless Workforce Conferences serves Saffron Strand’s overall goal to increase the economic self-sufficiency of homeless and at-risk persons while reducing unemployment, poverty, and public expenditures for emergency, law enforcement, and medical services. Through her grassroots workforce development work, Chysandra is opening new opportunities to both long-term unemployed job seekers and the communities in which they live.

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