Providence, Rhode Island- The WOU Providence team is celebrating the 1-year anniversary of their virtual job club! Work Opportunities Unlimited is an organization that thrives on their mission to “create new opportunities for success in the workplace, everyday”.  A core value of Work Opportunities Unlimited is to be “a pioneering and creative organization”. When the pandemic prompted a shutdown in March of 2020, WOU immediately put this value into action.

In the pre-pandemic world, the Providence area job club served as a weekly opportunity for clients to come together in person and work on job-related activities. At the onset of the pandemic, the Providence team Director Whitney Ritt, saw the opportunity to take the job club online. Ritt called upon Career Resource Specialist (CRS) April Lombardi, to evolve job club into an exciting and engaging virtual platform that would serve as an outlet for individuals to continue to come together and connect. A year later, they are celebrating the tremendous success of this program.

Reflecting on the past year, Lombardi shares that she knew that the success of the virtual job club would be essential to the individuals served through WOU. Lombardi recognized that engagement over a new and unfamiliar virtual platform would not be without its challenges, but she was energized by her commitment to the group and determined to succeed!

Lombardi provided the job club group with fun and exciting content. She integrated a work related “theme of the week” into a lively and inviting calendar promoting entertaining games and interactive activities, including a virtual field trip each Friday. In the virtual job clubs’ early days, Lombardi would ask a simple “question of the day” to encourage everyone to share and learn about each other. Slowly but surely, Lombardi witnessed a growing synergy that catapulted the group out of an initial sense of uncertainty, towards a feeling of excitement that infused each day’s events. The momentum grew, and engagement held strong. She created a space for individuals to not only gather and build relationships, but to also challenge themselves and build leadership skills. Lombardi says she saw the job club as more than just a gathering space, but as “a great opportunity for members of the group to take on leadership roles and to build their confidence.”

When Lombardi asks the group, “what do you enjoy about job club?” during their daily meeting, attendees eagerly respond. The feedback from both clients and team members alike reveals a common thread signifying the power of the connectivity and friendship formed through the job club over the course of the pandemic. Stephanie enthusiastically shares, “I made a lot of new friends and there are very caring team members who take good care of us!” Stephanie talks about how much she has learned at job club and how she has been empowered to share this information with others. Stephanie adds, “I take notes and show my friends the clips from the week!” Kadina says, “The wonderful team members help me and also I made new friends and learned new material that I had never learned before”. Jared talked about how he has made new friendships that have extended beyond the virtual realm of job club. When asked about what brings him back to the job club every day, Jared says, “I like how we talk about things!”. WOU team members echoed these sentiments. Director Whitney Ritt shared, “I love seeing everyone’s smiling faces and getting to know everyone better. We get to see the differences we make in each other’s daily lives”. Team Leader Al Hill says, “Every time I come here, I come away feeling much better than I did “. WOU CRS Chris Wonsencroft agreed, and added , “I like to see all of the happiness and the positivity. Job club brings brightens up my day!”.

A year later, the virtual job club is still going strong! It became so much more than Ritt, Lombardi, and their colleagues at WOU could have anticipated. It was a constant during unpredictable times. It served as a respite from the uncertainty and loss that accompanied the shutdown. The group became closer than was ever anticipated.  Lombardi shares that the virtual job club became their “pandemic support group” where individuals were able to come together and “laugh, cry on each other’s shoulders, and help each other through.”  Participants have formed long-lasting friendships that have enriched their lives. The virtual job club gave everyone a place to shine and to “share their gifts and talents”, says Lombardi, and to “learn so much about each other”. As a result of the skills gained through the job club, four of the participants learned the necessary skills to successfully return to their jobs following a period of furlough, two participants secured new job placements, and another participant secured a fulfilling volunteer position at a local museum. WOU is celebrating the success of the virtual job club, and, more importantly, commemorating the strength, resilience, and accomplishments of the group over the course of such a trying year.