The old adage about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes carries more weight when talking about Knox Countian Jonathan Clark, whose mile is closer to five and whose shoes are the same leather dress shoes he has worn nearly every morning on his walk to work since the New Year.
“I walked every morning. It took me an hour to walk back and forth to work,” Clark remembers as he sits in the conference room at the KCEOC Community Action office in Barbourville.
Clark works at the Barbourville ARH hospital in medical records and scanning, a job he was recently promoted to after fulfilling a work-experience position in the hospital’s housekeeping department through KCEOC’s Out-of-School Youth Program.
Unfortunately, not every transition in his life has gone as smoothly.
Sitting behind a conference table, Clark appears to be a normal 19-year-old, working toward advancement in his field. He’s dressed in a tucked-in, button-down shirt and khakis and a charismatic grin sweeps across his face. No one might guess that just a few weeks ago during the dead of winter he was homeless and sleeping in his car.
After graduating from high school in June 2015, Clark knew one thing for certain—he wanted to get out into the local workforce. But with no means of transportation besides his own two feet and a lack of job prospects for someone fresh out of high school, he realized he might be in trouble.
“I’d looked all over Barbourville, and I did not have a car so I couldn’t go anywhere else but Barbourville,” he says. “Most jobs require experience, or something with college or college degrees.”
Weeks of job searching turned into months. Clark says he remembers the pressure he was under to find a job to help support the household he was living in.
“My living situation was not the best—ups and downs. It was rough,” Clark explains, managing to maintain his infectious smile.
By August, Clark was fed up and decided to take some advice from a friend who had told him that the expert career advisors at KCEOC would be able to help him in his search for employment, even though he knew little to nothing about the agency’s programs.
“I didn’t know much about it. I just knew that my friends told me KCEOC would help me get a job and help me get on my feet,” he says.
Clark made an appointment with Ali Hill, a KCEOC career advisor. Hill enrolled Clark in the Out-of-School Youth Program, and sat down with him to determine exactly what career path he might like to take.
“She kept asking me what I would like to do, and she asked me would I be interested in going to college, and I said no. I just wanted to work,” Clark remembers. “She kept looking for a place that I would fit in and that would be good for me.”
Youth programs like the one in which Clark enrolled are administered at KCEOC under contract with the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP). The service helps youth build and discover their work skills and enter the workforce. The agency also administers an in-school program, which can help current students gain work experience prior to graduation.
While helping Clark search for open positions in Barbourville, Hill also helped perfect his résumé and interviewing skills so that when the right job came along he would be in a better position to land it.
That opportunity came when Clark received notice that he had landed a job interview at the hospital in Barbourville. He started his first day of work there in October 2015, but the assistance he received from KCEOC didn’t end once he began the work-experience position.
“At first I didn’t have the money to get what I needed to wear to work, so they were able to provide me the money to get what I needed for work,” he adds. “They helped out a lot.”
Several things changed during the few months Clark gained work experience at the hospital. He was able to save enough money for a car, which made his commute much easier. He was also working at the hospital when it converted from the Knox County Hospital to the Barbourville ARH on Dec. 1, 2015.
“The new CEO that had started . . . saw me every day, and people there were asking me when the work program would be over so they could help me out,” Clark explains, adding that when the work experience ended, he was approached about a position at the hospital scanning papers into the facility’s new records system.
Excited at the chance to start a possible new career path, Clark accepted the new position in medical records and scanning.
That excitement, unfortunately, was short-lived as Clark’s living situation quickly deteriorated in mid-January and he found himself homeless and living out of his car.
“I had to sleep in parking lots in my car on cold nights,” he remembers, eyes downcast and smile fading slightly. “It was very cold every night.”
Through the weeks of homelessness, Clark never gave up on his responsibilities with his career.
“I worked every day. I did what I had to do,” he says, his smile returning. “It took a lot. I’m always motivated to go to work and do what I have to do.”
That positivity kept Clark motivated as his situation became grimmer in February when he was forced to sell his car. Couch surfing for a few days left him with the realization that he needed to find some help.
“I finally called Ali (Hill) and let her know about it, and I called my boss and let her know the situation,” he says. “Even though I was homeless I kept going to work, taking showers at friends’ houses and eating at friends’ houses and stuff like that.”
Clark says a few days after calling Hill, she provided him with numbers for landlords with available apartments in the area, and put him in touch with KCEOC’s homeless services manager who was able to assist with the cost of utilities hookups and deposits so that Clark would be able to move in quickly. He took the first one he could get.
“I called and I didn’t even go look at it, I just wanted to go somewhere where I could lay my head besides my car,” Clark says.
Now, Clark is on the rebound and sleeping in his own apartment on a borrowed air mattress from the Barbourville ARH CEO. Still with no car, he had been walking to work every morning until a co-worker recently offered to pick him up and drop him off when he worked.
“I feel proud of myself because I didn’t let that hinder me. I didn’t fail. I didn’t quit. I just kept going to work,” Clark says. “I had to do what I had to do because I knew that if I would have quit I could never be where I am now.”
The place he is in now, much like him, is full of positivity and hope for the future—a future that Clark hopes will soon be filled with a second job and preparation for even bigger life goals.
“My future plans are to eventually go to college and get a degree and build my own business or something, and tell other kids about my life story,” he explains.
Clark adds that his life story likely would not have found its way to this optimistic place had he not made that first call to KCEOC and talked to Hill.
“I’d probably be stuck (without KCEOC),” he says. “I wouldn’t have the things that I have now.”
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.