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Two years ago, Betty Henderson, a native of New Orleans but a longtime Washingtonian who moved to the capital in the ’70s, faced a situation thousands of Americans face each year — several months of unemployment had turned into years without work. Even with a college education, the longer she went without a job, the more difficult it was to get back into the workforce.

The years without employment weren’t easy — she spent almost a decade moving from friend’s house to friend’s house — but Ms. Henderson never lost hope, and even as she watched other people her age begin planning for retirement, she continued looking for work. Throughout her unemployment, she found purpose in tutoring and mentoring others who were looking to build a brighter future, and she was determined to do the same for herself. So, on a Tuesday afternoon in October 2015, Ms. Henderson walked into a D.C. American Job Center and met with one of the site’s workforce development specialists.

It was during that visit when she learned about LEAP. Short for “Learn, Earn, Advance, Prosper,” my administration created the program during our first few months in office to connect residents just like Ms. Henderson to jobs in the D.C. government. LEAP allows Washingtonians to earn money as they are trained for D.C. government positions. The training program can last up to a year, but in most cases, residents are hired before the training period ends. Then, participants are monitored for two years and LEAP staff continue to provide support to both employees and employers.

The idea behind LEAP is simple: it connects local residents with jobs that serve their community. From fixing roads to staffing our 311 and 911 call centers, the D.C. government provides countless services that keep the District running and keep residents and visitors safe. By training and hiring Washingtonians who are already invested in bettering our community and helping their neighbors, LEAP is a win-win for our city and our residents.

With some advice on how to get her outdated resume into better shape and just three days to submit all her application materials, Ms. Henderson left the job center that afternoon on a mission. Two years later, she is employed full-time at a local recreation center where she was trained in customer service through LEAP. Inspired by visitors who would inquire about her healthy lunches, she took classes to become a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and now even leads her own nutrition class at the center. And today, Ms. Henderson finally has her own place to call home — close to where she works, in the neighborhood she serves.

Since launching almost three years ago, 240 District residents have gone through the LEAP program. Many of these residents are now working in full-time positions as mechanics, 311 call takers, customer care representatives, and more. In short, LEAP is helping us build a safer, stronger city.

Washington, D.C., has never before experienced better days, but like in many places across our country, our prosperity has not reached all residents equally. Years of systemic inequalities have held many Americans back from reaching the middle class. But our country remains full of men and women who are hopeful — men and women who want to work and are eager for opportunities to improve their communities. Through programs like LEAP, we are creating new pathways to the middle class and keeping the American dream alive.

WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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