COVID-19 Halts Employment Program at Oklahoma State University
Stacy Burgess was ecstatic about going to college. After falling on hard times, the 31-year-old enrolled earlier this year in a certificate program in retail floral design at Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City.
The 100-hour program is part of a new partnership between the university and Curbside Chronicle, a local magazine that hires those experiencing homelessness and related issues such as low income.
Due to a past drug conviction, Burgess had been turned down for a local job before she began selling with Curbside Chronicle about two weeks before starting the college course. The certificate was supposed to continue helping her gain better opportunities.
“It was amazing. It made me feel like I was actually doing something with my life,” she said.
Then, COVID-19 brought everything to a screeching halt. The university closed its doors, and the magazine halted street sales, leaving her with no income. The Homeless Alliance, a group of community volunteers in Oklahoma City working to end homelessness, is currently covering necessity bills, Burgess said
It’s not just K-12 and university students missing out on in-person education. Those enrolled in certification courses, many of whom may be low-income or experiencing homelessness, are adrift due to the coronavirus as well.
Before it shuttered, more than a dozen Curbside Chronicle vendors were enrolled in the floral design program, according to Ranya O’Connor, the magazine’s director. Graduates would have a job at the magazine’s new floral store, which was set to open soon near downtown Oklahoma City. Now, all of that is up in the air.
Burgess, whose fiance also sells magazines, is sorely disappointed.
“I’m so mad we were unable to finish,” she said. “We got to take full college classes like anybody else would and they were paid for. I didn’t know anything about flowers before I went, nothing at all, and they taught me everything I needed to know to be able to get to go to this job.”
The program started in March, after university President Brad Williams reached out to the Curbside Chronicle about the class and certificate opportunity for employees.
“I said if we are going to do this, let’s do it right so your vendors come out of this experience with not just practical on-the-job training, but something that is a credential where they can find a job elsewhere,” he said. “Our goal is to give them some sort of credential so that they can go work elsewhere in the community.”
The Inasmuch Foundation provided a $50,000 grant to establish the Back on Track Education and Training Fund.
Jordan Barton, floral manager for Curbside Flowers, trains the soon-to-be employees and took part in the certification course herself.
She said the Curbside Flowers program will be a yearlong work program for transitional employment. Anyone can sell magazines, she noted, and a lot of people go on to more traditional employment. But there are some people who may need some extra transitional time for various reasons.
“Our goal is to have people spend some time in the flower shop and leave with skills and time on their resume for them to get to move on to something else and for us to get to rotate people through,” she said.
In the class at OSU-OKC, the students learned principles of design, how to make a bouquet of a dozen roses, care and handling of flowers, corsages, bouquets and funeral work.
“I saw our crew just shine,” said Barton. “They had a blast.”
Since the university shut down, Barton said she has been checking in weekly with the students.
“They are asking when we will be going back,” she said. “There was disappointment, but they understand.”
For Williams, the class took a personal turn when one of the students recognized him. Turns out, the two had grown up in the same small town in Oklahoma. Life took the two men in different directions, but they met back up through the course.
“By having him part of the program, it reinspires us to keep doing more,” Williams added.
The decision to cancel the class “hurt,” he said, but once the campus is back open, they will let the students finish the class. “We’re excited to get them back on campus and celebrate as they complete the certificate and celebrate them as they get their job with Curbside and whatever is next for them.”
Burgess said she is hopeful they will be able to return and finish the class.
“It’s kind of devastating,” she said of the cancellation.”They’ll be open the flower shop soon and I don’t know if we will be able to finish the certificate. I just hope and pray we are able to.”