- BRIAN CHILSON
- BACK IN BUSINESS: After being closed for a year while its founder, Darlene Lewis, battled colon cancer, Lewis-Burnett Employment Finders is open again and ready to help people find jobs.
Darlene Lewis, 64, founded Lewis-Burnett Employment Finders out of her home in 1987, and in the years since, she’s placed thousands of people in jobs. Her mission to “give everybody a chance” has earned her national recognition: In 2015, she received the Community Service International Trailblazer Award from JABY Inc., an Atlanta nonprofit.
But for the past year, the agency was closed while Lewis battled colon cancer. As of January 2019, the nonprofit has reopened, and Lewis said it’s in the process of rebuilding, because “when God puts something on your heart to do, then you’ve gotta fulfill that.”
Even while the agency was closed, operations “never really stopped, it just kind of slowed down,” Lewis said.
“People never stopped calling me during that whole time,” Lewis said. “During that whole year, I still was receiving phone calls on a daily basis for employment, for courts, just everything. [They] wanted to know when I was gonna reopen. I had the court system calling me, wanting to know, are you doing community service? Can you service our people?”
The Lewis-Burnett office, formerly located in the Willie L. Hinton Neighborhood Resource Center, is now at 7101 W. 12th St. It’s small and most of the supplies and equipment have been donated. Lewis said she cleans the office building in exchange for a reduction in the rent, which is $700 a month. She added that the agency is in need of donations and contributions, saying that “right now, everything’s coming out of my pocket, and my pocket’s gonna run dry.”
The nonprofit focuses on “helping people help themselves” by offering record-sealing services, a process through which individuals to petition a judge to have felony offenses cleared or “expunged” from their records, allowing them to legally say on a job application that they have not been convicted of a crime. Lewis-Burnett also offers access to G.E.D. classes and help with job applications and mock interviews, all free of charge. In addition to the services the agency originally offered, Lewis-Burnett now offers help addressing credit problems. In her free time, Lewis’s granddaughter, Yolanda Burnett, volunteers at the agency and uses computer software to dispute problems on an individual’s credit score “one by one,” according to Lewis.
“We have so many individuals [whose] credit is shot, and they don’t know how to [fix] it without going out and paying thousands of dollars for someone else to do it, when it’s simple,” Lewis said.
Two volunteers for the agency, Josie Charlie and Cathy Bryant, also dedicate time to speak with clients who “just need someone to listen.” Bryant is an ordained elder with a nondenominational Christian church, and Charlie is a licensed certified nursing assistant.
Charlie said her troubled past allows her to identify with clients who’ve suffered abuse, used drugs, or struggle with depression.
“I’m the person that knows [what they’re going through],” Charlie said. “Someone can come and talk to me, and I can point them in the right direction that I feel they need to go.”
Lewis said Charlie’s ability to empathize with clients’ problems makes her a valuable resource for the agency.
“I can always call on her to talk to somebody who’s right there at that door,” Lewis said. “They just need to talk to somebody who’s been there and done that.”
- BRIAN CHILSON
- ‘A HAND UP, NOT A HAND OUT:’ Darlene Lewis founded Lewis-Burnett Employment Finders out of her home in 1987, and in the years since, she’s placed thousands of people in jobs.
For Lewis, Charlie and Bryant, their work at Lewis-Burnett is motivated by a desire to help the community, especially those who can’t afford services elsewhere.
“We do what we do from the heart,” Lewis said. “That’s why there’s no dollars attached. It’s not all about the dollars. … This is something that’s more ministry than it is anything else. … The money is a small part of the place. You don’t get in this type of business to become a millionaire. That’s not what you do this for. You’re in this business for helping people.”
To help ensure the agency’s services remain free of charge, Lewis said that as a side business, she helps individuals prepare paperwork to get nonprofit status approved with the Internal Revenue Service. She charges each client $500 to do so, then that money gets put back into Lewis-Burnett’s services for “individuals who don’t have the money and can’t pay.”
Lewis said the agency found jobs for 2,000 people in 2014, many of them former inmates. Her goal for 2019 is to place 1,000 people in “full time, permanent jobs” by the end of the year. In 2020, she hopes to move into a “much bigger” space, or maybe renovate the current office into a larger one.
Of those 1,000 people the agency aims to find jobs for, Lewis said she hopes a significant portion will be teenagers and youth.
“We want to reach the young people more than anybody right now,” Lewis said. “I want to work with them, I want to help them to get their life together. I want to introduce them to a new way of living, that it ain’t about the streets and the so-called gang-related family that you have out there.”
In 2016, the city of Little Rock released its three-year Master Plan for Children, Youth and Families. The plan outlined ways to improve the city’s Prevention, Intervention and Treatment programs by standardizing criteria for participating organizations to meet, targeting employability skills and creating a system to evaluate program success. Despite this, Lewis said Little Rock is “not reaching the right people” when it comes to helping at-risk youth.
“You need to touch the ones in these communities that’s doing nothing but breaking the law,” she said. “They don’t have nothing else to do. Young boys that I’ve known forever over there, running around, shooting at each other, most of them come from broken homes. And if the city spent a little time trying to help those individuals, it would not be so bad. … Focus on the ones that are having a hard time, because you know what’s going to happen? They’re already having a hard time, they’ve gotta eat one way or the other. They’re either gonna be able to feed themselves, or they’re gonna go rob somebody and feed themselves. I’d rather have them get a job. I’d rather teach them how to get a job.”
According to data from the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services, the unemployment rate of all Arkansas youth ages 16-19 was 9.9 percent in January. The unemployment rate of white youth ages 16-19 was 6.6 percent and the unemployment rate of black youth ages 16-19 was 21.7 percent. In Little Rock specifically, data compiled by Marla Johnson and Ken Hubbell as part of the city’s participation in the Network for Southern Economic Mobility indicates that there are between 5,500-6,200 ages 18-24 who are unemployed and not enrolled in school or job training programs.
Lewis attributes much of Little Rock’s crime to these youth, whose poverty she said keeps them locked in a cycle of theft to survive. To help these youth and the rest of her clientele, Lewis said the agency focuses eliminating specific “barriers” faced by its clients.
“On the bottom of [our] flyer, it says, ‘Lewis-Burnett is breaking the barriers,’ Lewis said. “And that’s exactly what we want to do.”
Lewis said these “barriers” to employment — and by extension, stability — include lack of transportation, inexperience in filling out job applications, access to daycare, drug use, depression or suicidal thoughts, lack of access to G.E.D courses and basic computer skills. The agency even wants to help those who are looking to start their own businesses, “because not everyone is capable of being a clock puncher.”
Much of the Lewis-Burnett client base learns of the nonprofit through word of mouth, according to Lewis, and the agency’s success stories help alert the community to its effectiveness. Lewis spoke of a man who was placed in a job working for U-Haul 11 years ago, where he still works and is now in management.
“That makes me feel like God’s work is being done,” Lewis said. “It makes me feel really good to know we’ve achieved something for someone so that someone can pass it on. It needs to be passed on, and then it becomes a great thing.”