When the clothing factory where she worked for 11 years went out of business, Helen Brittingham found another job at another garment maker.
When that company went under only a year later, Helen Brittingham didn't find another job. At first, she kidded her friends that maybe she was jinxed. Eventually, she made herself comfortable at home and consoled herself with nice things to eat.
"I'd sit there all day and say, 'Helen, you need to go look for a job'--procrastinating. . . . If I can stop saying it and get up and go , then it'll work."
On Wednesday, Brittingham, 51, joined more than 80 other people receiving one form of welfare or another at a Culver City seminar to get an upbeat kick in the pants.
In less than a year, Los Angeles County's "workfare" program will go into effect and will require able-bodied welfare recipients with children older than 6 to work, go to school or get job training in exchange for their benefits, with an eye to getting off welfare entirely.
There are more than 908,000 people who receive some kind of public assistance in Los Angeles County. And on Wednesday, these 80 of them, including a husband and wife from Philadelphia, an immigrant from the Soviet Union and an oil-refinery lab technician from the West Indies, showed up to take the first step: getting motivated, at a "Strategies of Success" seminar their unemployment counselors urged them to attend.
A Need to Work
Many, like Brittingham, are "tired" of not working. They have been unemployed for several months, or as long as nine years. Some dropped out of high school, some hold college credits.
And by lunchtime, seminar speaker Patricia Roper had them all sitting up straight. "You are a beautiful bunch of individuals! Give yourself a hand!" she urged them, with pep rally smiles and revival meeting cheer. "Turn to the person next to you and say, you are a beautiful and creative and talented individual!"
"She is a very inspiring speaker," said Brittingham, who pledged to start her job hunt and her diet the next day.
Roper, enlisted by sponsor Xerox Corp. to conduct a one-day seminar for two successive weeks, heads her own minority speaker's bureau and teaches that self-esteem is as important a job skill as typing or spelling or arithmetic.
Gaining Inner Strength
Using a booklet whose cover declares, "You can use life's misfortunes to gain inner strength needed for success . . . no matter how hopeless life seems to you right now!" Roper had the group list their dreams (Dream No. 1, "Win the lottery," was already typed in for them in advance), their obstacles and their goals.
"By the end of this day, you won't have no more excuses" for not pursuing your goals, she told them.
Her own obstacles were the same as some of theirs, Roper said. She too was a rowdy, overweight teen-ager, and then an abused wife, hooked on uppers and downers and short on job skills. But she was determined and, after 23 job interviews, somebody took the chance and hired her.
"I will not accept (society's) verdict of me. I will not accept IQ test results. Somebody in the ghetto invented the chitlins test, and nobody in corporate America could pass it!" she said to fervent cheers.
"It's like this lady is telling my life story," marveled Thelma Irving, 39, who read about the meeting in a borrowed newspaper and came with her escort from a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, where she has been sober for more than six months, after 22 years of substance abuse.
"People do have low self-esteem, a fear and insecurity of life as a whole--I wish everybody in my (rehabilitation) program could hear this," Irving said.
She is heading back out into the job market after "a million and one different jobs," and something like this "is taking out the negative thinking."
Donna Marie Gathright has had 50 job interviews since May, and Wednesday's upbeat session--which included a speech by Lynn Silton, a committee chair for the state Self-Esteem Task Force--was good for her. "Sometimes you need the stimulus, to be around a lot of positive forces."
The 29-year-old New Orleans-born single mother, who is halfway to a bachelor's degree, handled advertising at a small magazine until May and has been job-hunting since.
"I met three or four people this morning who don't even get up and get out of bed," she said. "I'm glad I get up and out and get the paper and look at what's there. Just because you're on the county doesn't mean you stop living."
She came Wednesday hoping that the seminar's other goal--an "adopt-a-mentor" program to put welfare recipients in touch with business executive volunteers who can give them guidance--can get her back into advertising or public relations.
No Longer a Cleaning Lady
Magally Morales is happy just not to be cleaning houses any more.
In Guatemala, she was a teacher and a law student, with a nice house and a servant. When she got here 15 years ago, she took the first job she could get--cleaning other people's houses, where she would hide in the closets and sob.
She was still cleaning other people's houses--"at 40, can you believe it?"--until an employment counselor recently told her that if she could learn English, she could get an office job.
"I was very tired of doing nothing. I told myself, 'Go do something,' " she said in Spanish, uncertain of her new English but following Roper's buoyant delivery. "I want a job with a future."
When her father dropped her off at the seminar Wednesday, he told her, " 'You should have done this years ago.' "