In her own Words

Arlena Williams: I Got my Confidence Back

Arlena Williams, JARC Graduate

Arlena Williams, JARC Graduate

I would like to start by telling you where I am in my life today. I am a fourth-year apprentice union pipefitter in good standing with Local 597. I’m a single mom with a teenage girl with no other income to supplement mine. I’m currently in the position to pay my rent and utilities, pay my medical bills, fund her future college goals, keep my hoopty running, and then have it totaled but not miss a day of work.

I’ve maintained a place to live for four years, even though I had to have surgery and was off work for over seven months. On top of that, I have excellent health benefits and a great retirement package. 

That might not sound like much, but for a long time those things were far, far out of reach for me. I’d get so depressed, I’d try not to think about it.

In fact, there was a time when my very talented son, who is now 24, received partial scholarships to various colleges, and we had to turn them all down because I just could not figure out how to juggle the added expenses of travel, living, eating, books and all the other things not included in the tuition package.

I told him I was willing to live in box for him to go to college, but I couldn’t do that to his sister.

At the time, I could barely get my bills paid. I played “eeny meeny miney mo” with my bills for almost a decade.

My primary food source was food banks. Going to work with my tank on empty, I had no savings, no way to build savings or fund a retirement. I was even scared to go to the doctor. Once when I went to the doctor, she gave me a list of tests to get, then handed me a bill for $1,000. I didn’t go back.

When I came to JARC, I’d already decided I wanted to be a welder and in the union. But I was wait-listed for the unions, and the temp agencies I went to were not willing to hire me. One hiring rep even told me that women don’t weld. And outside of those agencies, I was clueless about where to go to connect with employers.

As an African-American on Chicago’s Southside, it’s easy to get swept away in a sea of programs with good intentions. One can find themselves hopping from one organization to the next, hoping it will be the one that grants them the golden ticket out of poverty. 

One can also get lost in this web and lose hope.

But JARC was different. JARC was ready to meet me where I was and help me to move forward from there. They are thorough and extremely effective. They don’t just tell you about how to dress or give you handouts to read about how to get jobs. They don't throw you out there to fend for yourself. 

They practice the process with you until you become intimate with what it takes to get that job.

They evaluate your efforts, build your skills and confidence, then help you do better. And when you are ready, they bring employers to you. 

One of my proudest moments is getting a job on my first Interview. Before JARC, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to make it as a welder. They gave me my confidence back, and I think it shined that day. 

That is what I appreciate about JARC. They offer the whole package. Their help was not limited to just employment. They also helped with those things that stand in the way of employment like homelessness, lack of food, legal issues, managing your finances. They offer someone to talk to who knows that these are problems that can be solved. 

For me, it was my credit score. Before JARC, I didn’t think my credit or financial problems would ever recover from years of being underemployed.

Now I have set very tangible goals for myself. Goals I will reach within the next two years. And when all is said and done, I will not have to live in a refrigerator box just so my daughter will be able go to college.

Note: These remarks are taken from a speech given at JARC's Evening of Opportunities gala on June 9, 2017.