"They taught me to stand tall," says a longtime homeless man now working full time thanks to L.A. non-profit

By Johnny Dodd
April 02, 2015 06:50 PM
Credit: Courtesy: Chrysalis

Darius Coffey realizes it sounds a bit odd, but when he arrived at Chrysalis – a non-profit agency in Los Angeles’s Skid Row that helps the homeless find jobs – fresh from a stint in prison, all he wanted to do was ring the bell in the front lobby.

“It’s this old thing, about two-feet tall, and looks like it’s out of an Indiana Jones movie,” recalls Coffey, 33, of the bell that only gets rung when someone lands a job.

“I wanted a job,” he says. “I wanted to turn my life around. But what I really wanted to do was ring that bell.”

Like many of the nearly 2,000 homeless and low-income people the agency helps find jobs for each year, Coffey hardly had the type of resume that would impress potential employers.

Which is where Chrysalis, which was started in 1984 by a 22-year-old college grad with money saved up from his summer job cleaning pools, comes in.

The group’s mission, explains Chrysalis CEO Mark Loranger, is to create a pathway to self-sufficiency by providing resources and the support needed to not only help individuals find a job, but also keep it.

“Our philosophy is that we give a hand up, not hand outs,” says Loranger, whose non-profit runs three facilities in the L.A. area where “clients” – many of whom have served stints in prison for non-violent drug offenses and have a high school diploma and spotty work history – work “one on one” with case managers, known as “employment specialists.”

The goal isn’t just to find them jobs, but to give them a wide range of tools they need – from creating a resume to learning how to dress for an interview – to impress interviewers.

“We teach them to treat a job search as a full time job,” says Loranger. “Because you treat your job seriously if you treat your job search seriously.”

Margaret Willis with City of Santa Monica’s Human Services Division has seen the impact the organization has had with low income residents whom she has steered toward their “compassionate, hands-on” programs.

“They really understand the stress that people who are homeless and struggling go through,” Willis tells PEOPLE. “Their approach isn’t cookie cutter, but very customized to each individual.”

A Fresh Start

Which is exactly what Coffey learned after he found his way to the agency in 2011.

At the time, he was homeless and desperate to find some way to turn his life around and stay out of prison. After hearing that Chrysalis offered money management classes, he showed up at their offices and quickly learned about their other programs.

“It was fast paced, no nonsense,” says Coffey, “and I was impatient and almost backed out several times.”

But over the weeks that followed, his case manager helped Coffey change the way he thought about work.

“They gave me a new belief system and turned a lot of my negative thought patterns, which I’d been carrying with me since I was a kid, into something positive,” he says.

Within two months, Coffey, who won the organization’s 2014 John Dillon Award for the strides he’s made toward self sufficiency, ended up standing in the Chrysalis front lobby and proudly ringing “that bell” not once, but two times – for each job he’d landed.

“Going from being homeless to having my own apartment has given me a priceless sense of hope,” says Coffey, who now works full-time in the food services industry.

“They taught me to stand tall.”

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