Written by Connie Larkman
When Alice Foltz and friends open the door of opportunity for others, warmth wafts outward.
"The most heartwarming and inspiring thing about this whole project has been the number of volunteers from across interfaith lines," said Foltz who, along with her husband, Jerry, have been at the heart of operations at the Centreville (Va.) Labor Resource Center (CLRC).
Born out of the work of Wellspring UCC and reaching fruition courtesy of a shopping center owner who provided the space, the center opened Dec. 2 and has registered more than 170 area residents seeking temporary employment. A professional staff and 27 volunteers give out information and timely service to employers and employees alike.
"Centreville is a very diverse area of metro D.C.," said Alice Foltz. "Housing is a little less expensive, and there are a lot of immigrants in the community. We never anticipated that we'd have a workers center, but … "
And it came to fruition against some steep odds, she said.
"This is in a state –– and in a part of the state –– where there has been significant push-back on immigration," said Foltz. "This is very much a grass-roots project. I think that's the only way we could have done it here."
Lifting up the UCC's One Great Hour of Sharing (OGHS) as key to making the center a reality, Foltz said the facility provides translation for its primarily Spanish-speaking workers; maintains records of work agreements free of charge; and uses a rotating list to assign jobs, providing employers with information about available skilled workers.
"Previously, this kind of hiring was taking place on the street corner," explained Foltz. "Employers would come by and pick up workers, and it was not safe because of the traffic issues. Also, people shopping in the area didn't feel safe with a lot people standing around on the corner. So safety was an issue from a variety of points of view."
Grace Pusey, who served a 10-week internship last summer during a Summer Communities of Service stint in cooperation with UCC Volunteer Ministries, called the experience "the best job I've worked in my life so far."
"I really loved working in and living in an intentional community," said Pusey, who graduated from Montgomery Community (Pa.) College last December. "What I got out of it is a real direction for my life and a sense of purpose."
Dedicated to working with impoverished communities, immigrants and refugees, Pusey said Wellspring UCC "is everything a church should be. It's going out into the community and embodying the principles of fellowship, freedom, discipleship and community."
The center serves workers primarily native to Guatemala, said Foltz. "Some are from Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico, but a large majority are from one specific part of Guatemala," she said. Many of the workers have lived in the United States their entire lives. Their skills include cleaning, moving, remodeling, carpet installation, masonry, painting, yardwork, drywall installation, tile flooring, carpentry and cooking.
"We can keep records so that if employers don't pay, we can follow up," said Foltz. "One of the big problems for workers hired on the street is that they have no way to respond if they don't get paid at the end of the day."
"We call that wage abuse," Foltz said. "Some people call it wage theft. And you could call it slavery, actually. It happens frequently, and all day laborers have a story about it."
Full-time director Shani Moser and part-time organizer Molly Maddra ensure that more than 20 volunteers who teach English as a second language (ESL) are scheduled. "Most of the workers are Spanish speaking and in their 20s or early 30s," said Foltz. "Some who have been here a long time have good verbal English but can't read or write, so the ESL is very helpful for them."
On Saturdays, a licensed electrician volunteers three hours to teach a popular class in electricity. In February, classes in financial management, taxes and prevention of wage abuse were added.
Listening to her passion for her work, it is not surprising that the Foltzes recently were honored by the Centreville Day Planning Committee as "Citizens of the Year."
"They are human beings, they have rights," Alice Foltz said of those served by the center. "We are all aliens, and we need to reach out to our brothers and sisters."