The center’s Cassandra Halls and Marvin DeJear said collaboration with community partners makes its model one of a kind. Photo by Chelsea Keenan
The center’s Cassandra Halls and Marvin DeJear said collaboration with community partners makes its model one of a kind. Photo by Chelsea Keenan

The Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families aims to help Central Iowans struggling to re-enter the work force to regain their footing through educational attainment and workforce training.

Although Aug. 3 marks the center’s grand opening, it took 2 1/2 years of planning to develop and carry out its innovative concept, which involves the collaboration and input from organizations across the community, said Cassandra Halls, president of 2 the Top Career Advancements Strategies and the center’s project manager.

The broad outlines of the center were originally dreamed up by its namesake, community leader Evelyn Davis, who envisioned a community-based place where individuals could receive education and on-the-job training. Davis died in 2001.

The combination of rising unemployment and crime rates led businessman Jim Cownie to pick up where Davis left off, Halls said. But it hasn’t been easy. Those involved with the center had to get people thinking about unemployment and its solution in a different way.

“Everything is new; the whole development of the process is a new way of thinking,” Halls said.

The final product: a one-stop shop removing the barriers that prevent Des Moines residents from re-entering the workplace.

“We do an assessment to see where they are on an education level,” said Marvin DeJear, who was recently appointed the operations manager of the center. “We identify their needs and issues and guide them toward the resources they need. We ID as many barriers as possible: homelessness, mental health, addiction. It’s really a longer-term focus.”

Funding from the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, United Way of Central Iowa, Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) and Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino helped get the center off the ground and running.

DMACC and CDT Investments LLC purchased the building, which is located at 801 University Ave. and once housed Top Value Foods. After closing in 2004, the area was left without a grocery store, but come Thanksgiving this year, 24,000 square feet of the building will be filled with a grocery store, nail salon and jewelry repair shop. Simon Cotran, who is managing the retail end of the building, said offering healthful, affordable food within walking distance is important to those who live in nearby neighborhoods.

“A lot of people here don’t have cars and are low-income,” he said. “This will help the neighborhood.”

A partnership with DMACC, which also renovated the space and supplied it with computers, will allow the center’s clients to attain their high school diplomas, GED and in some cases, college credit, through various programs.

Likewise, relationships built with 16 community-based organizations, such as Goodwill Industries of Central Iowa, Iowa Legal Aid and Drake University’s Adult Literacy Center, will help clients with other aspects of their lives that may be troubling them, DeJear and Halls said.

Complete with individual cubicle space and a shared conference room to hold classes on financial literacy, English as a second language classes or credit repair, the organizations will mostly refer those seeking services to resources housed outside the premises to receive the help they need, Halls said. However, a system has been put into place so center employees and organization representatives can hold clients accountable.

“Collaboration is needed to truly change the community,” DeJear said. “Everyone from community colleges to corporations is involved, which creates a unique model.”

The site also has office space for a member of the Des Moines Police Department and a parole officer from Iowa’s 5th Judicial District, Halls said, because like everything else the center has to offer, these individuals play a role in helping the center’s clients get reintegrated into the community.

The back of the center will be dedicated to job training. Focusing on Central Iowa’s high-demand industries like financial services and health care, clients will learn new skills in a safe environment, Halls said.

The group is still working on forging partnerships with private companies to create training programs that end in a job placement, and both Halls and DeJear welcome any company looking to participate.

“Everything that we’re doing is to prepare people for employment, and we need employers at the finish line,” Halls said.

More than anything, the two want those who utilize the center and its resources to leave with a new outlook on life, despite its difficulties.

“To be successful, we need to have satisfied customers who leave here with the feeling of hope,” DeJear said. “Hope that they can truly change their lives.”