It probably seems like it was just yesterday for Mable Neville when life had taken one of its colder turns.
Steady employment for her at a national call center in D.C. abruptly ended as the company closed its doors and relocated to upper New York, leaving Neville unemployed.
After stretching her severance package and unemployment checks, Neville reluctantly adhered to her mother’s admonition to sign up for public assistance.
“My mother said, ‘I know you don’t want to, but you must,’” recalled Neville, who for the past 16 years has worked for The Washington Informer, first as an office assistant and now as the newspaper’s bookkeeper.
After signing up for public assistance in 2002, Neville enrolled in Project Empowerment, a northeast D.C.-based program that helps to reduce economic disparity in the District by serving thousands of individuals with multiple barriers to employment.
Project Empowerment’s work-readiness model is designed to provide hundreds of unemployed District residents with educational, training and subsidized employment opportunities each year.
“They had a welfare-to-work program that I signed up for and I went on interviews, but they only had a position that would last for 16 weeks,” Neville said.
After earning a certificate from the work program, Neville landed an interview with The Informer, where the paper’s publisher and owner Denise Rolark Barnes offered her a job.
“I knew that I wanted more than welfare because I didn’t want my children caught up in that system,” she said. “Look, if others can have [success], then so can I.”
Neville hasn’t taken anything for granted, either.
At the urging of her children and Rolark Barnes, whom Neville said has taken her under her wing like no other employer, Neville went on to earn an associate’s degree from Strayer University. Nine classes shy of a bachelor’s degree, Neville said her financial aid ran out, so she’ll have to wait a while to complete that goal.
But she’s already provided quite an example for her children, Vinshia, 22, Vashad, 17, and Vontrel, 12. It’s also resonated with her husband, Vincent, she said.
“I tell them, ‘don’t give up, don’t settle,’” Neville said. “[Public assistance] isn’t meant for us to stay on and live on, it’s just to help and you can choose to live on food stamps or you can go to Project Empowerment. I told one friend about it and, lo and behold, she eventually got a job within the government and she told me how she wants to treat me to lunch but I tell her that she’ll see someone else who needs help and she can give them the same advice that I gave her.”
Rolark Barnes said she’s delighted that her small business could participate in a program that allowed her to find such untapped talent.
“Mable was taking care of her kids at the time and she seemed to be determined with a great personality, yet she was no-nonsense,” Rolark Barnes said. “She demonstrated to me someone whom I thought would really take the bull by the horns and someone who was ready to learn and who also recognized responsibility.”
There are other turnaround stories that regularly fill the pages of The Informer and other Black Press newspapers, including that of another Informer employee, Angie Johnson.
For the past six years, Johnson, a neighbor of Rolark Barnes, has served as The Informer’s office manager. Wearing various hats and filling several roles, Johnson said Rolark Barnes provided her an opportunity that otherwise was hard to come by.
“It was in 2011, when the economy had gone bad and the company that I previously worked for downsized,” Johnson said. “I told Denise about it and she invited me to come to work here.”
Johnson said she’s had to adjust working among reporters and photographers and an entirely different atmosphere than what she found in corporate America.
“I’ve learned to enjoy my job here and, working in the Black Press for The Informer has allowed me to see what it’s like to give back to our community,” Johnson said.
She added that reading the newspaper is a desire she has for each of her seven grandchildren, but acknowledged that’s a tall task in an electronic, web-influenced world.
“I do have one grandchild who will read a book from beginning to end,” Johnson said.
She’s also witnessed the evolution of The Informer’s “The Bridge,” a separate publication Rolark Barnes rolled out for young ones.
“Angie is awesome,” Rolark Barnes said, noting that Johnson’s daughter used to babysit for Rolark Barnes’ children and Johnson’s son and her son were best of friends.
“Before I knew Angie, I knew her children and they were extraordinary,” Rolark Barnes said. “When I got a chance to meet Angie, her life had changed and when she came to become a mother and eventually a grandmother, she had already proven to be this hardworking woman who was just trying to make the best of her life and I admired her for that.”
She said hiring Johnson was a win-win because they’ve helped each other.
While there’s a sense of pride, Rolark Barnes said there’s also trepidation about her prized employees.
“People are supposed to grow, so there’s a sort of sadness because you realize at some point they say enough is not enough, so I’m always nervous that the job they’re doing is good but then it’s not enough, so they’ll move on,” Rolark Barnes said. “It becomes, can we do enough to make this relationship fulfilling for both us. The paper has grown and are they willing to learn new skills? But we keep each other encouraged, it tends to become like family.”
Providing opportunities for those who might not have otherwise been afforded a chance has been a hallmark of the Washington Informer and the Rolark family.
“It probably all comes from my dad,” Rolark Barnes said of her late father Dr. Calvin Rolark, a popular activist who founded The Informer. “He said you have to give folks an opportunity and he was very optimistic about most people. I know a lot of folks who worked with him and who loved him because he gave them opportunities and when he started the newspaper, he said we have to change the dialogue about Black people.”