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Their job: reviving self-respect

Paul Key of WorkExpress congratulates Paul Harrington in Brockton.
Paul Key of WorkExpress congratulates Paul Harrington in Brockton.Handout

Bill was laid off at work and became homeless. Chuck had nowhere to go following a family dispute. Paul's mother and girlfriend died within a year of each other, and he became depressed, even suicidal, and lived out of his car for a while.

All three — and many more — have sought help from the WorkExpress program at Father Bill's & MainSpring, which operate shelters in Quincy and Brockton. At a recent graduation ceremony from WorkExpress, graduates and alumni were honored for staying sober, getting jobs, and finding housing.

"One of the reasons we have the graduation right before the holidays is that, for some, they have no one to go home to," said Paul Key, workforce development director for WorkExpress. "We want them to feel appreciated and supported at a time when other people get together for holiday parties, and they don't have that."

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The ceremony and luncheon were held at Shaw's Center in Brockton, with the mayor and other dignitaries present for the 12 graduates.

None of it would have happened without the dedicated staff at WorkExpress, a social services program for motivated clients at the shelters. It is a strict program. Sobriety must be maintained, and is tested weekly. Participants attend a 12-step program at least three times a week.

WorkExpress contracts with employers, mostly south of Boston, to provide services such as landscaping, painting, and janitorial needs. It is a brilliant model, really. The work contracts cover about 80 percent of the program's costs, which include paying the participants, and maintaining the fleet of vehicles they use in their jobs. The men and women work from 8 a.m. to noon, and have the afternoons for mandatory classes.

Besides vocational training, there are life skills classes, computer training, job interviewing, and résumé development classes. And there are financial classes, including budgeting, credit cards, and avoiding identity theft.

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"We teach them everything from the importance of being punctual, to how to work as part of a team and what are professional ways to communicate," said Key. "We cover the gamut of how to function day to day. We want people to leave the program with a sense of self-sufficiency."

One woman came in to WorkExpress an alcoholic with no place to go. Today, she works as a medical assistant. "She worked hard, and it was a challenge for her at times," said Key. "But she was motivated. She has been with her employer for over a year, and they love her. She's sober, and she has her own apartment."

Graduations are held twice a year, and alumni come back and talk about their sobriety, their jobs, their homes.

A year ago, said Key, Chuck came to MainSpring. For years, he had struggled with mental health issues that kept him from leading a stable life. He graduated recently from WorkExpress, is living in a Brockton apartment, and has applied for work in a warehouse.

Two of WorkExpress's main employers are Maloney Properties, which operates apartment buildings in Wellesley, and NeighborWorks, a nonprofit housing group in Quincy.

Finding permanent housing for the WorkExpress clients is not as difficult as finding the jobs: Father Bill's & MainSpring owns a 32-unit SRO — single-room occupancy — building in Brockton as well as other apartment buildings.

"Our focus is on building our customer base," said Key. In the Quincy program at Father Bill's, four people are involved in WorkExpress. The goal is to expand to 10 workers.

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"I'd love for companies to know that if they're ever looking to hire, these are great candidates," said Key. "They're extremely committed individuals who have finished a pretty ambitious 12-month curriculum and they're ready to work, to be productive members of the community."

One of them is Paul Harrington, a Whitman native. A year ago, he came in deeply depressed, having lost his longtime girlfriend and his mother within a year of each other. "I kind of gave up on life," he said.

At WorkExpress, Harrington got the counseling, the AA meetings, the jobs. "Everybody there just kind of woke me up," he said. "Once I got into doing the work, they put a lot of responsibility on me, and that's what I needed."

Now, he has been hired as a WorkExpress mentor and spoke at the recent graduation. In his paid position, he serves as a crew leader on some jobs, helps lead group meetings, organizes the classrooms for training, and mentors others.

"When guys come into the program, I show them the ropes, I talk to them, because I've been there," said Harrington. "I feel good, and I felt so worthless before."

No doubt the saintly "Father Bill" McCarthy, who died at age 82 in 2009, is feeling good, too, about the programs he helped launch, to help those who are homeless and who feel worthless, to find a home, a job, and self-worth.

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Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at isobel.english@globe.com.