With an end comes a beginning at the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP) this month as three Eastern Kentucky residents with the AmeriCorps’ Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA) end their year of service, though two will remain with the agency as full-time staff members.
Martha Stacey, April Leisge, and Michele Whitlock were recognized during a reception on Friday, Aug. 7 at the Kentucky Career Center JobSight in Hazard, where they began their volunteer service in August 2014. They were presented with Kentucky Colonel certificates and also named Duchesses of Hazard.
“They have been a tremendous asset to EKCEP,” Executive Director Jeff Whitehead said at the reception. “When they came in over a year ago, they came in with energy and enthusiasm and just a willingness to jump in there and help people.”
Melissa Benton, commissioner with the Kentucky Commission on Community Volunteerism and Services, was also on hand for the event. A VISTA alumna herself, Benton said she understood what it meant for these three volunteers to devote their time and effort to EKCEP’s mission of preparing, advancing, and expanding the workforce of Eastern Kentucky.
“It’s great to hear of the good job they’ve done here, and how valued they’ve been,” Benton said, adding that in an average year a VISTA commits anywhere from 7,000 to 8,000 hours of service.
Stacey, a West Liberty resident, will finish her last hours of service in late August. She began working with EKCEP’s Teleworks USA division within her first months as a VISTA. She initially wanted to serve after seeing so many people willing to volunteer their time and effort to help others in her own community.
“My husband and I, we lost our home in the tornado in 2012 that hit West Liberty,” Stacey said.
The March 2, 2012, tornado devastated the city of West Liberty and much of the Eastern Kentucky region, and claimed the lives of more than a dozen people in the region.
“There were so many volunteers that came into our community to help,” she said. “I always thought if I ever got the chance to do something, then I would.”
Her chance came a few years later.
After the tornado, Stacey said she retired to take time to rebuild her home. By 2014, she was in search of a new opportunity.
“I went to the Job Club in West Liberty, and they said what about becoming a VISTA,” she recalled, adding that that career choice ended up being the perfect way to give back to the area that helped her and her neighbors so much.
“It’s a chance to serve. It was just something I could do to pay back for all of the people that helped us after the tornado,” she said, explaining that before serving at EKCEP she had not known much about the agency. “Now I know that there’s a lot of people working in Eastern Kentucky to help people find jobs. It’s just nice to know that there are people working to help find jobs and bring the economy back in this area.”
Leisge, of Cumberland, and Whitlock, of Ashland, began their year of service working with EKCEP’s Hiring Our Miners Everyday (H.O.M.E.) jobs initiative while also helping to strengthen Job Clubs programs throughout the region. And while their volunteer service is at an end, both have accepted offers to join EKCEP’s staff on a full-time basis to provide support for the agency’s ongoing projects.
Leisge, who was previously a stay-at-home mom of 20 years, said she knew it was her time to give back to her region once she had finished her years of service to her children.
“It was time, my kids were all in high school and college, and I was ready to start something new,” she said.
With nearly 1,000 H.O.M.E. clients contacted within the first few months of service in an effort to reengage them in the program, Leisge and Whitlock worked tirelessly to help enhance the programs they worked with during their first year at EKCEP.
“It’s been an awesome experience,” Leisge said. “I’ve enjoyed getting back into the workforce and helping people.”
Whitlock said she left her job in local government to work toward giving back to her community, as well.
“I came on a little later in life. I had worked for about 20 years as a manager for a convenience store chain, so I had done the private sector thing,” she said. “I spent seven years in local government, so I had done the public sector thing. I was looking for a change, kind of looking what was the best way to segue from one career path to another.”
When Whitlock stumbled upon the idea of becoming a VISTA, she said she knew that was exactly what she had been looking for.
“I had always said I was a really great consumer, but not much of a contributor. This was kind of a way to swing that balance back,” she said.
Whitlock added that she was glad her time at EKCEP was not over, and that she would be continuing in a permanent position as project assistant, working with some projects that she saw start up at the organization.
“It’s a great group of people who really dedicate their time to helping other people,” she said. “It’s really great that we can start something, and now we have the opportunity to see how it grows or how it changes.”
EKCEP, a nonprofit workforce development agency headquartered in Hazard, Ky., serves 23 Appalachian coalfield counties. The agency provides an array of workforce development services and also administers the Hiring Our Miners Everyday (H.O.M.E.) program, which provides career services to laid-off miners and their spouses. Find out more at www.jobsight.org and www.facebook.com/ekcep.
Holliday is a marketing communications associate with Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc. (EKCEP), and can be reached at 606-436-5752 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.