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'Our doors were open': Saliba Center learning to pivot after pandemic year
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'Our doors were open': Saliba Center learning to pivot after pandemic year

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During the past pandemic year, where unemployment reached record peaks and virtual learning and restrictions were mainstays for most students and educators, Dothan’s Alfred Saliba Family Services Center has faced multiple challenges and continued to meet the needs of those who depend on the center to assist in making their tomorrows better.

For 27 years, the Saliba Center, whose namesake is the late longtime Dothan real estate developer, civic leader and former mayor Alfred Saliba, has offered an abundance of services to the Wiregrass with the purpose of solidifying a strong community through skilled, educated and prepared clientele.

The nonprofit has several sites throughout Dothan, including the Lafayette Street location that houses multiple departments focused on adult career and education services, including the Community Career Development Center (CCDC) and the Career Designs for Youth (CDY).

“Our doors were always open (during the pandemic),” Beth Ford, program support and development manager at the Saliba Center said. “Even when we were working from home and providing virtual services, we were still working to help the people in this community better the situation they were in.”

The CCDC works specifically on job search assistance, readiness training, career planning and academic development for adults.

Although unemployment figures peaked nearly a month after COVID-19 gripped the nation and reached more than 14-plus percent, CDCC coordinator Sonja Lyles said she didn’t let those numbers intimidate staff members as they continued to push CCDC clientele toward virtual training and education sessions.

During 2020, the CCDC helped over 600 people with 60% of those obtaining a job during the pandemic. Lyles said even though that is only about half the number of people they typically assist each year, the success percentage was the same. She said the steady percentage shows the center was able to deliver the same level and quality of service that people were accustomed to.

“There were so many people in need,” Lyles said. “So many people lost jobs and there were also a lot of issues with childcare for many people. One of the greatest thing with the Saliba Center is we are always willing to help people remove whatever barrier they are facing.”

The Saliba Center’s departments work to take an extra step with their services going beyond basic career training services. Lyles said during the pandemic they were able to provide transportation for those without, and even helped with grocery expenses for some clients.

Lyles said that the uncertainty the pandemic brought to the CCDC was the most difficult obstacle to overcome when trying to help people gain employment.

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“I would have people call me and say they had a position open, but no one wanted to offer interviews because it was so uncertain whether the position would stay available or if the facility would even stay open,” Lyles said. “I just told them what I always tell the consumers; let’s just focus on what we can do. Even if someone takes the job and then the facility closed, they would at least be working for some time before that.”

George Storey, coordinator at the CDY, which focuses on helping 16-24 year olds obtain their GEDs and move to post-secondary education, said his issues were similar to those the CCDC faced.

“It was kind of like herding cats,” Storey said. “People were moving and it was hard to keep up with everyone virtually to make sure we kept them on track.”

Storey said similar to schools and educational programs across the country they saw a decrease not only in enrollment numbers, but also motivation.

“They were missing an integral part of their everyday by not seeing us and seeing their instructors,” Storey said. “I tried to develop rapport they usually got from their teachers and help hold them accountable. If someone didn’t have transportation to their GED test, we took them. We just tried to identify the issues and get past them. We are an extra set of eyes and hands to keep pushing forward.”

Both coordinators agree that many of the virtual changes created as a result of the pandemic will remain in the future. Lyles and Storey both plan to make accommodations by offering services via video calls like FaceTime or virtual sessions to clients who may not be comfortable leaving their homes.

“It’s just another way to keep people involved,” Storey said. “You can’t be here? Okay, no problem. I can FaceTime you. That’s not going away, even in the therapeutic world it’s going more in that fashion.”

Ford said she believes a common misconception about the Saliba Center is you have to be down on your luck to receive services. However, people who want to better their career or education situation can find a place at the center.

“That is not at all the case,” Ford said. “If you want to move up in your career, maybe you need training in a certain skill before you can move to a different position, you can get that here. You don’t have to be unemployed to be involved at the Saliba Center.”

Ford added that anyone who may not need services but wants to be a part of center can volunteer or make a donation.

“We need people who are willing to donate and be a part of this,” Ford said. “You’re money goes to legitimate hands on services. We also take clothing donations for our boutique which provides job-ready clothes for people who cannot access them on their own. Our gates our always open for people who need services or wants to help further those services.”

Sydney McDonald is a Dothan Eagle staff writer and can be reached at smcdonald@dothaneagle.com or 334.712.7906. Support her work and that of other Eagle journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at dothaneagle.com.

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