HIGHLAND — Sunday’s graduates of United Way of Northwest Indiana’s Level Up program took to the stage to receive congratulations and a sweet reminder: This is just the beginning.
“Keep pushing and leveling up,” Hammond’s Rafael Swift told them. “It doesn’t stop.”
Swift and his wife Lourdes, graduates of the program in 2021, spoke at the graduation dinner for the 69 new graduates of Wicker Park Social Center.
Lourdes tried to enter the job market after not working for five years. Thanks to Level Up, she obtained a certification in medical billing.
“It’s been a real blessing,” she said. “They helped us achieve our goals. They made our goals their goals.
Rafael, who worked for Lake Ridge Schools, is certified in insurance and plans to open his own office.
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Level Up was “life changing, inspiring,” he said. “It’s never too late to start over.”
Lourdes called the program “truly a family. They have been with me every step of the way.
Rafael described Level Up as a “community that will nurture you and help you grow with life goals. It will help you not to give up…to overcome that poverty mindset.
Level Up provides access to soft skills training, financial education, professional certification training, employment connection, employment and retention counseling and elimination of financial and socio-economic barriers.
Depending on their situation, participants complete the program in 12 to 18 months.
Clients must agree to complete all program requirements, including meeting one-on-one with Level Up staff and meeting income and household requirements.
In return, they receive advice on financial education; access to workshops on topics such as expense planning, credit, savings and home ownership; career planning support, help in navigating community resources and a support network.
The program started in 2019 and graduated its first class of 45 last year.
Director Erin Stojic noted that one in four households in northwest Indiana struggles financially on a daily basis: “These people work hard, work maybe two, three jobs, no benefits. They cannot afford basic necessities. We created this program to help them get better paying jobs, earn more money to survive and thrive.”
She added, “We help people find their program and make sure it’s the right program. We try to identify the obstacles that prevent people from obtaining the necessary resources. We help them navigate their situations.
Graduate Kristopher Prisco, of St. John, entered the program in October 2021 while working at an auto shop in Lynwood. He was looking for more personal training with a teacher. Today he is a welder.
“The program helped me manage my studies and I was able to find a job,” he said, adding that Level Up helped him learn how to save money.
Alicia L. Hampton, owner of Strike & Walk Da Cup Welding of Hammond, partners with Level Up to prepare students. “It takes a lot of hard work, dedication and sacrifice,” she said. “And they did.”
Tyler Johnson, of East Chicago, went from working at a healthcare staffing agency to being a licensed massage therapist.
“I learned that my possibilities are endless,” Johnson said.
Loretta Dozier, of East Chicago, works as a medical assistant for the Indiana Department of Children’s Services. “I can work with children and help their lives,” she said.
Maria Cruz of Schererville entered Level Up in January and completed the program two months later. She works as a medical assistant in a professional medical building in Munster.
“They’ve been very helpful, especially with my family,” said Cruz, a mother of five, ages 5 to 29. “I want to do more. I want to become a registered nurse.
Kimberly Campbell of Merrillville is proud of her son, Christopher Smith, who completed the program and landed a new job.
Michigan City poet Carnessa Carnes, opening the graduation program, encouraged new graduates to “keep the momentum going.”
“Don’t stop here. Make a difference in the community,” said United Way Board Chairman Jeff Strack.
Adam O’Doherty, president and CEO of United Way of Northwest Indiana, hopes the program will grow to have 1,000 graduates and then 10,000 more.
“Too many people are struggling in our society, and we need to change that,” he said. “We need to uplift families to break the cycle of poverty.”
The program is always taking new registrants. To learn more about Level Up, visit unitedwaynwi.org/level-up or call 219-464-3583 in Porter County or 219-923-2302 in Lake County.