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When your work is second nature

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Jobs. A concern for many in the United States as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn how Keely Hawkins, employment services coordinator at the IRC in Denver, approaches her job finding employment for others in her interview with Karen Larsen, an IRC communications volunteer.

While others may experience a career path with many twists and turns, Keely Hawkins has discovered that working with refugees and other vulnerable populations is second nature. “I immediately fell in love with refugee resettlement. You have the opportunity to work on international issues affecting people’s lives in and outside the United States. And their needs are so varied. You must apply your problem-solving skills every day to find the resources your clients need.” 

Preparing for today

As early as high school, Keely volunteered in homeless shelters and felt very comfortable working with marginalized groups. Internships for her Bachelor’s degree in human services from East Tennessee State University and her Master’s degree in social work from the University of Tennessee helped prepare Keely for her position with the IRC in Denver. In her first internship with World Relief, a resettlement agency in Nashville, Keely’s responsibility was to find employment opportunities for refugees with advanced education degrees. “Many of our clients with advanced degrees can only be initially employed in entry-level jobs. It is a very challenging situation.” 

Keely’s second internship was also with a resettlement agency in Nashville--Catholic Charities. She enjoyed the strategic aspects of her position where she evaluated service delivery for the agency's resettlement program. However, Keely’s clinical side yearned for more client interaction. Eventually, newly-assigned casework responsibilities took her into the community and clients' homes. “That is where I feel most comfortable. I recognized that you can’t assess programs if you don’t interact firsthand with those who are in need and are receiving services.” 

Keely’s time interning at two resettlement agencies, in addition to time spent in Haiti focusing on mental health, trauma and mindfulness, reinforced her career choice. “I love the field of social work and the opportunity to work with refugees. It gives me the ability to think at a macro level but also operate empathetically and directly with clients. A good blend.”

Job-hunting confidence

When the environment for refugee resettlement became less tenable in Tennessee, Keely took a risk and moved to Denver, confident that her restaurant experience would hold her over until she could find employment in social work--hopefully, refugee resettlement. That’s when a little magic happened. Keely happened to take an inbound call to the restaurant where she was working. It was from an IRC employment specialist who wanted to explore whether the owner would be open to hiring refugees. Their conversation led to Keely being hired by the IRC in Denver as an employment specialist.

Keely started with the IRC in April 2019. While she had previously worked at two other resettlement agencies that delivered impactful services, she finds the IRC to be quite different--and a logical next step in her career. “The IRC is just outstanding. It is a larger scale than I was used to, it has an international infrastructure and funding, it places great importance on quality assurance, monitoring and accountability. I had always wanted to work for the IRC because it is known for its caliber within humanitarian organizations.” 

Meet Keely Hawkins, employment services coordinator at the IRC in Denver Photo: Keely Hawkins

Matching employers and employees

This past month, Keely stepped into a new role with the IRC, and will now be leading the employment team as employment services coordinator. In her new capacity, Keely will build on her experience as employment specialist to coordinates a team whose responsibilities are two-pronged. First, they work with clients through many phases of job development: employment assessment, training, and interviewing with the goal of a successful job placement that provides self-sufficiency and empowerment. This client-focused model also may include cash assistance, cash management, and compliance in how clients manage their financial assistance. Second, they work with employers to create job placement opportunities. Keely feels fortunate that the IRC employment team was well-established when she joined. They had built strong employer relationships and community connections. “I must bow down to them. They set the foundation for the jobs we are creating now.”

What Keely enjoys most about her role at the IRC is seeing a client’s development from beginning to end--even when that involves bumps in the road. She appreciates being able to talk with employers about how an employee has improved in their job skills, their English language, or their comfort level in the work setting. 

Denver’s high cost of living, lack of easily accessible public transportation, and the constant concern for lay-offs--even before the COVID-19 crisis--puts pressure on Keely to find appropriate employment for her clients. Sometimes she must help them understand that jobs may only be stepping stones. “I am honest and realistic with my clients. I often need to reset expectations by saying: ‘this is where we are; it is not where you will be forever.’”  

It is second nature for Keely to be passionate about what her clients can offer to an employer. “It is more than just doing a job. They bring skill, perspective and languages that an employer can leverage in their business.” Keely wants to work even more closely with employers in the Denver metro area as well as across Colorado. Her goal is to continue to build awareness in the community, strengthen employer partnerships and expand job shadowing, internships, and one-on-one professional mentorship. She continues to apply learnings from her first internship, where she helped clients with higher-level skills find jobs. “I am grateful for dishwasher positions, and I want to see our clients in the front of the restaurant or store. I want to see them hired into the professional positions they have both the education and experience for.” 

Self-care is a job, too

When asked about her personal coping skills considering that she works with people often experiencing employment and financial insecurity, she is realistic: “They are human. You are human. We are working together on difficult challenges. I try to remind myself that I am only one person, that my clients are naturally resourceful and that they have had a lot of experience being resilient. It is probably the hardest part of my job.” 

When asked about how her day is going, she quickly returns to why she loves her job and why it is second nature to her. “Today, I got the chance to take a client to cash her first paycheck. Now that is what I define as rewarding.”