Local woman wins national award

Wednesday, September 28, 2011 - 20:00
Job Center employee creates program for inmates
Sheila Baker poses in front of a computer at the Eagle River Job Center. Baker recently won the James F. Walls award, which is given by the National Association of State Workforce Agencies for outstanding work in the field.

In three decades in the bail bond industry in New Mexico, Sheila Baker saw the same faces again and again. A lack of resources for those incarcerated left inmates without a lot of options to find employment once released, she said.

“I watched that revolving door spin out of control,” Baker said.

So when she began working at the Eagle River Job Center four years ago, Baker started a program to help female inmates at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center find jobs upon their release. Baker’s efforts with her program, Bridge to Success, and with the Mature Alaskans Seeking Skills Training (MASST) program, have not gone unnoticed.

The National Association of State Workforce Agencies (NASWA) recently honored Baker with the James F. Walls award. The award recognizes one state workforce agency employee in the country “whose conduct demonstrates outstanding dedication to customers and colleagues, and extraordinary service to the local community,” according to the NASWA website.

The State of Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development announced Baker received the award Sept. 14. A formal ceremony was held Wednesday, Sept. 28 to honor her in Anchorage.

Baker said she was flabbergasted when she heard the news.

“I was surprised and shocked,” she said. “I didn’t even know they had nominated me.

“It’s a huge honor,” Baker said.

Baker’s seven-week course teaches inmates how to search and apply for jobs, interviewing skills, how to build a resume and how to discuss their conviction with prospective employers, she said.

Baker said she couldn’t be happier with the results of her class. In the first year of her program, the recidivism rate for inmates who took the course was 20 percent, Baker said. It was 49 percent for Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, she said.

In the program’s second year, Baker said her recidivism rate was zero. The correction center’s was 41 percent, she said.

The program’s third year had a 15 percent recidivism rate, Baker said, and the correction center’s was 39 percent.

“My recidivism numbers have just been phenomenal,” Baker said. “I’m really proud of the program.”

Recidivism rates are determined by several factors, but Baker’s program is crucial in providing inmates with the tools needed for successful re-entry into society, said Dean Marshall, superintendent of Hiland Mountain Correctional Center.

“I’m very pleased and grateful that she’s out here,” said Marshall, who’s been the superintendent since 2000. “She has a high energy level. She brings a lot of excitement.”

Perhaps no one appreciates Baker’s program more than Denise Hansen.

Hansen participated in Bridge to Success as an inmate at Hiland. Since her release, Hansen has started her own cleaning business, Heart Springs Home Detailing.

If it weren’t for Baker, Hansen said she wouldn’t be where she is today.

“She’s just got a wonderful personality,” Hansen said. “She’s there for you. When she says, ‘My doors are open when you guys get out,’ she seriously means it.”

Upon her release, Hansen immediately went to Baker for help finding a job. Hansen said she still seeks Baker’s advice.

“I know anytime if I have issues, I can go to Sheila,” Hansen said. “She’s just an awesome lady.”

Baker’s program is a great resource, but inmates must be willing to help themselves, Hansen said.

Baker agreed.

“The real heroes are these women,” she said. “It’s their success that makes the program successful.”

Baker was first introduced to the Job Center as a MASST trainee. While searching for work, Baker said her current position became available.

Like Bridge to Success, the statistics for MASST are impressive. According to Baker, more than 75 percent of MASST trainees find jobs.

“We’ve done extremely well in getting them placed,” she said.

The current economic climate has kept Job Center staff busy, Baker said. People of all ages can be seen any given day at the Job Center, Baker said. The only commonality shared is that everyone is searching for work, she said.

Baker said her time inside the office is nearly identical to her Bridge to Success course.

“We do the same thing here everyday I do at Hiland or anywhere else,” she said. “Anything we can do for the job seeker, we’re here to help.”

In November, Baker will be holding a new workshop for people recently released from incarceration. The workshop will mirror her Bridge to Success program, Baker said.

The workshop will be held at the Eagle River Job Center the first Thursday of November, Baker said. Anyone interested can sign up online via ALEXsys or in person at the Job Center.

Baker said she’s hoping the pilot program will be a success and it will spread to other job centers.

Hansen — now two and a half years sober — said having Baker as a resource gave her the confidence to change her life.

“Years ago I would have give up,” Hansen said. “But I don’t give up now.”

Baker’s open-mindedness is one of her best qualities, Hansen said.

“She doesn’t judge you,” Hansen said. “I would love to have her as my mom.”

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