Today Philadelphia native Brenda Bowens will tell you she feels empowered. She is winning at life, and helping others be winners, too − but she had to overcome many obstacles along the way.
Without a high school diploma, Brenda held odd jobs for many years and experienced periods of unemployment.
In 2013, she learned about community classes provided by the District 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund, a participant in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Ready to Work Partnership initiative, which helps long-term unemployed Americans find work.
Brenda committed herself to taking as many classes as she could to learn new skills and brush up on others. She even earned her high school diploma at the age of 40 in 2014.
It was also at 1199C where she saw a flyer for a paid apprenticeship with Philadelphia FIGHT, a health services organization for people living with HIV/AIDS, and those at high risk. After passing an intensive interview process, Brenda was selected as a community health worker apprentice with FIGHT in January 2015.
During the first four months she completed many days of training and shadowed case managers. Then for the next nine months she assisted with the Y-HEP program, which offers a variety of holistic services and support to low-income youth ages 13-24. Brenda was able to do “everything,” including mentoring youth, educating them about resources, cooking meals, and sometimes just giving hugs during tough times.
The empowerment Brenda received from her supervisor, Danica Moore, and other managers at FIGHT, was critical to her success as an apprentice. “Danica always told me to let my light shine,” said Brenda. “She encouraged and supported me however I needed her, and reminded me about the importance of self-care.” Her current supervisor, Assata Thomas, would remind her that she was “already enough” during times of self-doubt.
In January 2016, Brenda completed the apprenticeship and was promoted to a full-time position, which came with a raise. Today she is employed with FIGHT’s Institute for Community Justice as an assistant case manager, helping people transition back into the community after imprisonment.
“I know some of the barriers I had and that helps me identify and relate to my clients. I use my journey to encourage them and let them know there is a way out and they can be winners,” she said.
In some ways, her journey is just beginning: She will become a first-time homeowner this summer and plans to begin attending college in January to earn a bachelor’s degree in either human resources or social work.
Apprenticeship can work for everyone, no matter your age or background. On-the-job training opportunities can be found in many different fields. Learn more at www.dol.gov/apprenticeship.
Joanna Hawkins is the deputy director of public affairs for the department in Philadelphia.