Jane Helire is the job developer and life skills instructor at Covenant House, a safe haven for homeless and at-risk youth located at the edge of the French Quarter. On a recent day she pointed to the wall behind her.
“This is our employment board, and it’s the males on one side, and the females on other side," she says. "It has a list of everyone who is employed and who should be job searching and touching base with me, and who’s in class and who I haven’t seen just yet.”
Helire, who her students all call Ms. Jane, teaches a range of skills having to do with employment — from writing a résumé to anger management, to attitude and hygiene. She tells her students that, when applying for a job, you have to talk differently than you do with your friends.
“In order to get that job you have to code switch, you have to turn that side off and bring that professional side out. You don’t go in like: ‘Can you tell me if you’re hiring?’ I would tell you no. But you go in with a smile. 'Hi, My name is Jane Helire, can you tell me if you’re hiring?' You got to put it on.”
Victoria eagerly listens to everything Ms. Jane tells her. Victoria is 20 years old and has been living at Covenant House for three weeks.
“My mother and stepdad have drug problems," Victoria says. "I had an altercation with my stepfather, and she chose his side over mine. And I didn’t have any family to support me or to go to, so I had to leave the home because I felt my life was in danger.”
Victoria heard about Covenant House and, with nowhere else to go, simply walked in the door.
“I don’t have anyone, but they’ve had my back since I been here. They helped me get my ID. They give me a shelter, they feed me, and they tell me the things I need to do to get my life back on track. I have a three-year-old cousin still in the household, and they’re helping me get an attorney so I can get my cousin here with me.”
Ms. Jane talked Victoria into going back to school at Xavier Uiversity, where she was a sophomore studying to be a pharmacist. But for right now, after taking Ms. Jane’s class, Victoria will try to get a job in a pharmacy department, like at a Walgreen’s.
“It’s been a minute since I had a job, and I knew I needed some help in that field, so I was happy to have someone here help me learn how to interview and everything," Victoria says.
Covenant House provides shelter to runaway and at-risk youth, ages 16 to 21, but it offers so much more than that: educational programs, employment, three meals a day plus snacks, and childcare coming soon. There’s also a program called Rites of Passage, or ROP.
“If the youth or individual have a job in school and saving 80% of their money, then they can apply to go to ROP, which is more independent. They cook their own meals, have their own kitchens.”
Essentially, they prepare to live independently.
“We always tell them to have a plan, and one of the best plans is to follow the program — which is do what you have to do in crisis, Helire says. "We don’t ask much, and then make it to ROP. And with the life skills they teach them in ROP, they’re ready to go back and be independent, and that’s our goal.”
Covenant House has a lot to offer. Physical and mental health services, literacy and GED prep classes, early Head Start for young mothers, and most importantly, a caring staff who work with each youth individually.
Helire ends the class. “All right ladies. You are dismissed. Thank you Ms. Jane. Be on time tomorrow. See you tomorrow. Take your folders. Use your resources.”
For youths in crisis, Covenant House's "nineline" hotline is 1-800-999-9999. The crisis center doors at Covenant House are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.