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Making a Difference in Communities

Job training in Rockford, feeding the hungry in Springfield

State News IL: Community

Photo by Jon Lowenstein/NOOR

Jeffery Merrill, a part-time janitor at a community center, volunteered for a makeover for a job fair in Rockford. AARP Illinois is becoming increasingly involved in communities such as Rockford.

Jeffery Merrill knows that first impressions count, especially on job interviews. He's looking for a full-time job while he works part time as a janitor.

"I was kind of scruffy looking," admitted Merrill, 60, who has worked most of his adult life in factories and as a truck driver. "I need to look my best when I apply for jobs. There's a lot of age discrimination out there."

See also: Volunteers play important AARP role.

So he eagerly volunteered last fall for a free makeover offered in advance of the AARP Career Resource Fair in Rockford. Terri Worman, associate state director for advocacy and outreach at AARP Illinois, took Merrill shopping.

The makeover included a haircut at a local beauty school and a new suit. The $125 makeover was paid for by AARP Illinois.

Before and after photos were taken of Merrill and three other job seekers. The photos were put in a brochure distributed to career fair attendees to show them it's possible to look sharp for an interview even on a low budget.

Approximately 200 people attended the career fair at the Best Western Clock Tower Resort & Conference Center, a popular meeting place. In addition to AARP Illinois, the fair was cosponsored by The Workforce Connection, Rock Valley College, the Illinois Department of Employment Security, and the Northwestern Illinois Area Agency on Aging.

Aimed at older job seekers, the fair had employer representatives looking to hire as well as workshops. A panel of human resource executives offered tips on interviewing. Another session taught participants how to use the Internet to help find a job.

Working with local groups

The Rockford career fair was part of AARP's community presence program, a three-year-old effort to work with local organizations on issues that affect older people.

In Illinois, community presence efforts are active in Rockford, Springfield and Chicago.

A manufacturing town, Rockford has been hit hard by the recession. Plants have closed, and many workers have been laid off. In March, the Rockford area had the state's highest unemployment rate at 11.7 percent.

On average, unemployed people over 55 spend more than a year searching for a new job.

"We decided to focus on jobs in Rockford because of the need," said Worman. "We thought this would be a step in the right direction."

The Rockford career fair has been held for two years. One of the fair's most popular sessions last fall was how to use social media, such as Facebook, to help find a job.

"The room was packed," she said.

As a result, AARP Illinois is launching a year-round training program instead of a once-a-year career fair. Worman has recruited a handful of AARP volunteers to teach older unemployed people. Classes are held at community centers on social media and how to use computer programs such as Microsoft Office. For more details, visit the AARP Rockford Facebook page.

"Rockford has a lot of folks coming out of manufacturing who need to get a good grounding in computer work," said Worman.

Meanwhile, Merrill is looking ahead. He may go back to school to become a physical therapist if he can't find a full-time job soon. But he hasn't given up yet, and he's worn his new outfit on job interviews. Whatever happens, he said, "I'm ready."

Fighting hunger

In Springfield, the AARP Illinois community outreach program works with the local senior center and focuses on hunger. Putting a different twist on traditional canned food drives, the program included a fundraiser to provide gift cards for needy seniors to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. The program raised $2,000 last November, which was matched by AARP Illinois.

Priscilla Cutler, 67, of Rochester, who lives on monthly Social Security and food-assistance payments, received food baskets for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The baskets, which included a $25 gift certificate to buy meat, may seem like a small thing, said Cutler, but "I was completely blown away."

Also of interest: Turning community organizing into a tool of empowerment.

Jane Adler is a freelance writer and editor living in Wilmette, Ill.

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