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From welfare to work

Volunteer spirit pays off
Sandra James started out as a volunteer at the Arizona Department of Economic Security and worked her way into a full-time job.

Sandra James started down the road to full-time employment as a volunteer.
She answered phones and filed paperwork as an office volunteer for the Arizona Department of Economic Security. That was in 2004.
Her real goal was to find work and get off welfare. The volunteer stint was a first step.
Ms. James began receiving benefits when she took on the responsibility of caring for her granddaughter. Under the welfare-to-work rules, Ms. James could not continue to receive benefits without looking for a job.
At DES, she received training for job interviews and writing a resume.
In lieu of full-time work, DES offered Ms. James a volunteer slot. She took it from there.
In 2005, Ms. James was transferred to the DES office of licensing, certification and regulations, which inspects and licenses foster homes. Still a volunteer, she handled calls on foster-home safety inspections.
She answered any number of questions, including “Do we need smoke detectors in all the bedrooms?” Ms. James would answer: “Well, yes you do.”
“It was a real hands-on experience,” says Ms. James, 48. “For me, it was real exciting.”
Developing skills
Many DES volunteers like Ms. James develop office skills that they can take to the job market. At the licensing office, she learned quickly. What she didn’t learn was her enthusiasm for the job — that came naturally.
Her spirit and work ethic did not go unnoticed, says her boss and licensing office administrator David Matthews.
“She did an exceptional job,” Mr. Matthews says. “We brought her on full-time and we’ve since promoted her.”
As a salaried employee, starting May 2005, her first task was to reorganize the files of incoming applications from foster homes.
“That was good,” she says. “Then I knew where stuff was going to be.”
Now she works at a computer, juggling schedules for four foster-home safety inspectors who cover the entire state. All foster homes are inspected at least once every three years, and often more frequently, Mr. Matthews says.
“We try to do about 300 a month,” Ms. James says.
For her, work means more than a desk and a computer screen.
“We work together as a family,” she says. “That’s what I love about this office.”
It’s a family that Ms. James herself helped to create. For one, she organized the “We Are Family Committee.” The office committee sends out e-mail birthday cards for employee birthdays, as well as get-well and sympathy cards. It also plans pizza parties for departing employees.
Speaking of Ms. James, Mr. Matthews adds: “She’s actually contributed to making this office more of a family than she realized.”
Ms. James might be on salary, but she still carries the volunteer spirit.

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