By Khadijah Ali-Coleman
“If you have a job, think of [hiring] a Southeast Ministry student,” Valarie Ashley suggests.
Ashley, executive director of Southeast Ministry—a Ward 8-based nonprofit located on MLK Ave in SE that provides job training and educational services to adults—has led Southeast Ministry since 2009. She has grown the small nonprofit into a community haven that is attracting the attention of both those seeking services and those with services to provide.
“Our goal is to help those who come to us become better participants in family and community,” Ashley says. Many of those served by Southeast Ministry are often unemployed or underemployed, she adds, so, training them to become employable is a priority.
“For us, underemployed looks like people who are taking anything to earn money—temp work, handyman services—jobs with no future guarantee, no benefits, no guarantee that there will be work tomorrow…many people who have been locked out of the job market for so long.”
Ashley finds that the first step to making folks who come to Southeast Ministry employable usually starts with building basic skills and helping in the area of education. She also finds that teaching from an African-American cultural perspective also helps makes learning relevant to the students. For, she says, “ninety-nine percent of who we serve are African-American.”
Growing at the Root
In just the past two years, Southeast Ministry has helped hundreds of adults earn their GED and build employable skills while attracting donors and community partners who offer valuable opportunities to Southeast Ministry clients as well. One participant, Melissa Moon, a local mom participating in Southeast Ministry’s GED classes is appreciative of all of the organization’s offerings.
“I’m trying to get my GED to better my life and my children’s lives and Southeast Ministry is doing a great job,” says Moon. “With the help of my teacher Ashley [Luttmer], I’ve been getting helped in things like percentages and algebra, things I didn’t do so well or understand in school.”
Valarie Ashley admits that she is grateful that Southeast Ministry continues to thrive and be available to provide services to adults like Moon despite the current financial troubles in the US and the specific issues communities like DC’s Ward 7 and Ward 8 face. She attributes Southeast Ministry’s longevity to the community partnerships she’s formed with other organizations in the city. One partnership with the nonprofit organization Byte Back provides technology training to adults and has been a recent success of Southeast Ministry.
“The partnership with the nonprofit Byte Back allows us to add that technology component to our services which is so necessary,” Ashley says. “So many people are afraid of computers, so at intake, we make people get an email address to begin the process of being familiar with computers.” Ashley laughs as she admits that the next step, after having clients set up an email account, is actually conditioning them to begin using their new email address to communicate.
“It’s all about training. We have to train people to check their email.”
Another partnership, this one with DC Public Schools, allows students to enroll in an External Diploma Program which allows them to take high school level courses and earn a high school diploma. For the first time, three Southeast Ministry participants graduated from the External Diploma Program this past summer.
Ashley, who has worked for larger nonprofits like Covenant House and Goodwill during her earlier career explains that building partnerships is one of the most important thing a smaller nonprofit can do to stay relevant and responsive to the needs of those served.
“I’ve come from someplace big, but when you’re with someplace big, opportunities come to you , so the question now becomes, how do I find resources as a very small nonprofit so I can provide quality programming to the people who come here because we do have the good fortune of being right here on the avenue.”
What she and her staff have done is scour the city and create networks with other nonprofits and businesses to lessen the difficulties those coming to Southeast Ministry will face. One example is the service integration partnership established with Brighter Day Ministries, located across the street from Southeast Ministry. To support Southeast Ministry clients who may have difficulties finding food or having clothes appropriate for a job interview, Southeast Ministry staff can refer a client to Brighter Day Ministries to receive fresh food rations or clean and appropriate clothing to wear for the job while Brighter Day Ministries can refer clients to Southeast Ministry for adult education classes and job training.
But, sometimes, community offerings walk right up to the front door.
When Gifts Come Knocking
“So, this is the best story,” Ashley begins. “So, one day I get a call from our office manager saying that there are two men downstairs that say that they’re from the government and they say they can save us money on our energy bills. And, as they’re coming up, I’m like, ‘Who is this trying to scam me,’ but, it was real.”
These two men were from the District’s Department of the Environment, knocking on doors to inform nonprofits about a weatherization grant which would provide efficiency assistance in the form of replacing windows, insulating the attic, changing light bulbs to more energy efficient ones, and bleeding radiators. After a 17-page energy audit and confirmation from Ashley to begin work, contractors renovated Southeast Ministry in a matter of months.
“We have this space that is more comfortable to have and windows that we can actually look out of now. We knew that our building was meager before, but not how meager it actually was. We didn’t realize how inefficient the building really was,” Ashley says.
With the new building renovation, comes a renewed spirit that Southeast Ministry definitely plays an integral part in the larger landscape of Washington DC. Ashley confirms that the goodwill shown Southeast Ministry only strengthens her resolve to stay focused on serving those who are most at-risk of being passed over for employment.
“At the end of the day, I don’t have a problem asking for things if it makes the difference between someone getting a job and not having one.”
To volunteer, donate and learn more about Southeast Ministry, visit www.southeastministrydc.org or call 202-562-2636
Liberated Muse partners with nonprofits throughout the Washington DC area on arts projects and workshops. Southeast Ministry has been a partner with Liberated Muse since 2009.