By Gregg Fishman.

In a small commercial building in Red Bluff that has been transformed into a workshop, 20 people are creating handmade locally designed products and recreating their own futures at the same time. This is Washington Street Productions, a Welfare-to-Work program created cooperatively by the Tehama County Department of Social Services and the local Workforce Investment Agency, Job Training Center—a CalWORKS provider.

Leaders from these organizations realized that creativity can spark a lot more in people who have been struggling with some of the most basic aspects of life.Together, they are teaching valuable job skills, putting people to work, and creating products that help sustain the program. Washington Street Productions received a CSAC Challenge Award in 2016.

The people who find work at Washington Street have all been on public assistance. They may be recovering from substance use, domestic violence or extreme poverty. Some have never had a job before. At Washington Street, they are given the opportunity to participate in a paid job, making things in the shop. The clients create everything from simple crafts, to refinished furniture and fine art. The products are impressive, and even more so is the way the program is changing lives and giving people hope.

Housed in a non-descript building a block off of Main Street, the shop is scented with wood dust, paint, and varnish. You can tell when you walk in that the clients at Washington Street Productions are invested in the program. Stick around a little longer and it’s clear the staff is also invested in making this program work. They care about their clients and want them to succeed. “The people who receive services here are people we live next door to and see at the grocery store,” Tara Loucks-Shepherd told us. She’s the Program Manager for the Tehama County CalWORKS program. “It’s important for our entire community for those people to continue to grow as individuals and hopefully grow as professionals in order to be able to give back to their community in the long run.”

Mistakes are expected, and while there are rules, they are enforced compassionately and second chances are plentiful. The clients learn what it means to put in an eight-hour day. They learn how to work with other people. And they get creative. At Washington Street, participants who haven’t had any experience in painting or using tools are hand painting vintage looking signs you could hang in the kitchen, and using power tools to sand furniture for refinishing. The clients learn to be proud of working and making things. The pride is magnified when someone buys what they made and the money is plowed back into the program so others get the opportunity to participate.

That pride, perhaps as much as anything, is the gift of Washington Street Productions.The clients learn they have skill, talent, value as an employee and as a person. As they progress, they can even learn to manage other people because Lead Worker jobs are available to those showing success at the project. The pride is magnified even more when the clients graduate and find long term employment. We talked to one woman who went through the program at Washington Street and ended up helping to manage a medical clinic. Another client had been a construction worker, and through the program found he had a talent for managing and motivating other people that he never knew he had.

The program has been so successful it has helped Tehama County meet federal target goals for work participation that had seemed unattainable. The creative spirit is alive and well, and putting people to work in Tehama County.

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Tehama County’s Washington Street Productions was honored as part of the 2016 CSAC Challenge Awards, which recognize the most innovative best practices developed by California Counties.

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Originally posted at the California State Association of Counties.