Sonia Thomas was placed in a job by Advance Memphis. She works for National Guard Products, drilling holes in components for commercial doors. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Without a job, you can’t pay bills or keep your dignity.

Without skills, you can’t get a job.

Without transportation, you can’t get to work.

Advance Memphis, a nonprofit fighting local poverty, identifies barriers to employment and works to overcome obstacles – one person at a time – one ZIP code at a time – starting with 38126 (the poorest zone in Memphis and Tennessee).

Advance Memphis provides job placement, skills training, financial education, entrepreneurship classes and assistance with high school education (GED) completion.

But help doesn’t stop there.

Advance Memphis created a savings account matching program to help graduates buy a car – transportation to get to work (on time) and back home.

Plus, while many adults cope with life’s traumas through family, church or other means, impoverished citizens frequently lack a proper support system.

Trauma, left unaided, can contribute to drug use, crime or reduced productivity, which might mean losing a job a worker wants (and needs) to keep.

To help residents cope, Advance Memphis added a two-week trauma healing course to its six-week Work-Life Program (a “soft skills” course teaching dependability, time management, communication techniques, creativity, conflict management and resume writing).

Volunteers certified in trauma healing teach the trauma segment.

“Our greatest hurdle is not a lack of jobs,” said Steve Nash, Advance Memphis founder and chief.

“The bigger issue is how fragile life is … the loss of a job, interrupted family structures, people living on someone’s couch, or the expense of raising children in two homes.”

“It’s the lack of stability.”

Nash supports Moore Tech of Memphis, a vocational and technical school underscoring $100,000 jobs for mechanics, plumbers, etc. Yet, classes don’t fill quickly given false impressions of blue collar work.

“‘College Bound’ education has been sold in Memphis, which says something to us that isn’t true for everyone,” said Nash.

“When 20-year-olds view what their parents did workwise differently, this makes it hard to help.”

Advance Memphis offers a general automotive elective to stir interest and connect workers to Moore Tech.

South Memphis warehousing services and jobs

Located at 769 Vance Ave., Advance Memphis serves 38126 residents seeking jobs and training options.

The South Memphis zone sits near FedEx Forum and the former Cleaborn Homes and Foote Homes – the city’s last public housing projects demolished in 2011 and 2017 respectively.

Nash has 20 business partners that hire (and empower) program graduates. The agency builds relationships with companies, churches and civic groups to achieve various goals.

Determined to reduce the stress of getting to work, Nash acquired buildings at 960 South Bellevue Blvd and 575 Suzette Street to provide jobs right in the neighborhood.

The 24,000 square-feet Suzette Street warehouse (in 38106) borders 38126 and was secured through a donor who bought the facility and donated it to Advance Memphis last year.

A decade earlier, Nash acquired the 9,000 square-feet Bellevue Blvd. building.

Both warehouses offer dividable space and accommodate small operations.

Warehouse clients include: Versant Supply Chain, Mahaffey Temporary Structures, Sorbent Green LLC, The Big Inch and DocoZoo (maker of Amazon’s #1 selling extension pole).

Advance Memphis averages 7 to 10 fulltime laborers at its warehouses and staffs jobs for private companies, also. Al Blanks, Advance’s on-site supervisor, manages 45 workers at partner sites.

Jobs involve packaging, labeling, sorting, assembly or other light skills, plus construction duties.

Workers earn an average of $9 per hour in full-time temporary jobs that can lead to permanent roles.

Sonia Thomas, an Advance Memphis graduate, is employed at the Bellevue Blvd. warehouse, drilling holes in metal components for a manufacturer of commercial doors.

“I’ve worked through Advance on and off for five years,” said Thomas while operating a machine and wearing safety goggles. “I drill for this company (National Guard Products) that makes parts for doors.”

“I see ‘dignity’ in adults when bills are paid through non-traditional jobs,” said Nash.

“I see marriages, entrepreneurship and stability.”

Leasing space to budding entrepreneurs

As an additional service, Advance Memphis leases warehouse space to entrepreneurs who complete LAUNCH, a business start-up course provided by the nonprofit.

LaTonya Taylor, owner of Epic Bouncing – a company offering rentable water slides and bounce houses for children’s events – leases equipment space at the Suzette Street warehouse.

Taylor is a graduate of LAUNCH coursework.

Donald Jenkins, an Advance Memphis employee, is also owner of Jenkins Lawn and Tree Removal Service.

Jenkins leases space at the same warehouse and completed the entrepreneurship and financial literacy courses. His business allows him to hire residents from 38126 – the community where he was raised.

Samilia Colar, a fashion and sewing expert and LAUNCH graduate, teaches sewing at the Suzette Street warehouse.

Memphis Tilth, advocate for locally grown food and community gardens, leases Suzette Street warehouse space for special events. Tilth assisted Advance Memphis with its community garden.

Cars for people in need

A lack of transportation is a major barrier to employment.

Creative thinking led Advance to a possible solution.

The agency houses a dozen donated vehicles – three ready to sell now (at low prices) and nine awaiting repairs.

A volunteer mechanic and college student repairs the cars part time – he plans to open his own auto mechanics shop in the future.

Gateway Tire donated auto repair tools and Melrose High School Vo-Tech donated an overhead automotive lift after the school district ended all shop classes.

Once repaired, graduates can purchase a car using Advance’s savings account matching program, which deposits two dollars for each dollar saved.

Graduate Darlene Gandy saved $1,000 from earned income – Advance Memphis matched it with $2,000.

Gandy purchased a car from the nonprofit for $3,000.

Of her $1,000 contribution, Advance is saving $500 for the next person and using $500 to purchase tools for the auto repair shop.

Partnerships, volunteers and results

According to Advance Memphis, for 2019, the nonprofit generated $856,000 in wages through partnerships and 89,850 employee work hours.

The agency reported 144 program graduates, including four GED recipients.

Advance says volunteers clocked 4,000 hours of work and their top five LAUNCH businesses earned $422,000 in revenue.

Also for 2019, warehousing revenue from outsourcing services totaled $119,100, and to commemorate its 20th anniversary, Advance held its 9th annual Arts for Jobs fundraising event, selling hundreds of art pieces and attracted 600 guests.

The event raised nearly $250,000 and drew 51 sponsors.

Support extends to staff members

An unusual perk of being an Advance Memphis employee is the chance to own a home in 38126.

The nonprofit offers a $5,000 down payment grant to qualifying employees.

One staffer purchased a home at Georgia Ave. and McKinley, taking advantage of the homeownership offer.

February ‘Share the Love’ drive for supplies

Throughout February, Advance Memphis is requesting “an investment in economic stability” by collecting donated office supplies for training classes.

Paper, binders, legal pads, safety goggles, Kleenex and other needs are on Advance’s Amazon Wish List: http://a.com/gdKczFg.

On February 22, Advance Memphis will pick-up donations arranged through Kelsey Martin, community engagement manager, or donors can deliver supplies directly.

(For information about Advance Memphis staffing services, training programs, outsourcing options or partnership opportunities, or to make a monthly or one time donation, contact (901) 207-3002 or visit https://www.facebook.com/advancememphis or www.advancememphis.org.)