Magazine

Game Changers

Four creative efforts to fight income inequality through education

Bunker Hill Community College, Future Chefs, Sitters Without Borders, and Gradifi aim to help students and recent grads climb the economic ladder.

042532016 Charlestown Ma Dr. Pam Y. Eddinger (cq) is President of Bunker Hill Community College. She is photographed for the Magazine Game Changers Series. Boston Globe/Staff Photographer Jonathan Wiggs
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Navigating the ins and outs of college is challenging enough for these students, says Bunker Hill’s president, Pam Eddinger.

Income inequality and the financial struggles of millions of Americans are among the most pressing problems facing the country today. Count these Game Changers among those giving a leg up to the people climbing the economic ladder.

HELPING STUDENTS FIND THEIR FOOTING IN THE CORPORATE WORLD

At Bunker Hill Community College, three-quarters of students are the first in their family to get an education beyond high school. Many of them are the children of immigrants.

Navigating the ins and outs of college is challenging enough for these students, says Bunker Hill’s president, Pam Eddinger. Getting an internship in the corporate world — an intimidating place for many people, especially students who don’t have the money to take the train, let alone buy a suit — can be like “traveling into a foreign country,” she says.

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To help students overcome these obstacles, the school started the Learn and Earn program in partnership with the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, a public policy nonprofit made up of chief executives from around the state. The program matches Bunker Hill students with such heavy-hitting companies as Fidelity Investments, Raytheon, and State Street Corp., where students work up to 40 hours a week and make $15 an hour. They also get a transportation stipend of up to $500, earn academic credit, and are assigned on-the-job mentors.

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More than 435 students have gone through the program since it started in 2012, two-thirds of whom are minorities, ranging in age from 18 to 59. In 53 instances, the internships have turned into permanent jobs.

“What we try to do is really level the playing field,’’ Eddinger says. “It’s our job to say to them, ‘You are entitled.’ ’’

In 2015, the American Association of Community Colleges named Bunker Hill’s program the best college-corporate partnership of the year.

Nontraditional students like the ones at Bunker Hill, some of whom come from war-torn countries or have struggled with poverty, often display exceptional maturity, Eddinger notes. Combined with the confidence and professionalism gained in the corporate world, she says, they come out of the internships looking “completely different.”

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“It’s like one of those science-fiction transformation booths,” she says. “Even more than the corporate culture that we’re giving these students, it’s really a sense of self.”  — Katie Johnston

A FUTURE IN FOOD

Since 2008, working mainly out of high schools, Future Chefs has provided culinary training to disadvantaged young people. Its goal is twofold: Offer them career paths while addressing the restaurant industry’s shortage of chefs, line cooks, and prep workers.

Now the Boston organization is doing even more to create work opportunities that benefit larger society. It’s launched Future Chefs Delivers, in which participants are paid an hourly wage to make and deliver free, healthy food to local nonprofits, including homeless shelters and after-school programs. That might mean preparing short ribs and braised vegetables for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dorchester or whipping up cream cheese brownies and chocolate mousse for the Women’s Lunch Place. Students who do well are eligible for a paid apprenticeship at a high-end eatery; partner restaurants include Trade, Taberna de Haro, T.W. Food, and Island Creek Oyster Bar.

“We’d like teenagers to think about this as their first career,” says Future Chefs founder Toni Elka. “You build your skills and craft and learn to think like a professional. It’s really a mind-set.” In the process, the program also teaches professional chefs how to mentor young employees, turning at-risk youth into community assets. — Sacha Pfeiffer

FREE CHILD CARE FOR COLLEGE STUDENTS WHO ARE PARENTS, TOO

When Oksana Hradyska attended Simmons College, she was dismayed whenever female classmates dropped out because they couldn’t find child care. That prompted her to create a volunteer baby-sitting group, which was immediately in heavy demand. Based in Boston, that group has grown into a nonprofit organization that aims to provide safe, affordable baby sitters to low-income families in which at least one parent is attending college. Through Sitters Without Borders, eligible families receive up to four hours a week of free baby-sitting and can pay $20 for each additional four-hour block. Volunteer sitters, who are vetted by the organization, must be 18 or older and have some child-care experience. The group now has about 15 sitters and has helped more than 40 families, which Hradyska acknowledges barely makes a dent in demand.

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“There’s definitely a huge need,” she says. “We have families applying left and right, and we even get calls from people in other states.” As funding increases, she hopes to match new sitters and families together and ultimately help more parents get an education and more families gain economic independence.  — Sacha Pfeiffer

MAKING A NEW BENEFIT

Helping employees pay off their student loans is the hottest new worker benefit, with some of the largest companies in Massachusetts, including Fidelity Investments and Natixis Global Asset Management, offering it.

Gradifi Inc., a two-year-old Boston startup, is in the middle of this boom, providing the student loan management technology that helps businesses pay off their workers’ debt. Twelve companies, including Natixis, are using Gradifi’s platform, says Tim DeMello, the company’s founder. And he says he’s working with more than 100 other companies to bring them on board.

The benefit is among the newest ways companies are trying to attract and retain young workers burdened by student loans. The average student debt in the United States has climbed 60 percent, to about $29,000 from about $18,000 in 2007, according to the US Department of Education. Economists say figures like those force young adults to delay big financial decisions, such as buying a home and having children.

Tapping into this market has helped Gradifi grow from a handful of employees last year to nearly 30 workers.  — Deirdre Fernandes

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