‘The Best Thing That Happened for Me’: Making Connections at Loudoun’s Crossroads Jobs

When Debbie Bowman and her adult daughter Aryn moved to Loudoun from Florida in 2019, a series of tough life events brought them to a local homeless shelter. 

Determined to bounce back, find work, and build a home, the mother and daughter sought help from the Leesburg and Sterling-based nonprofit Crossroads Jobs, where founder and Executive Director Carol Smith is also an active job counselor.

“She’s been our angel,” Bowman said of Smith.

After a series of training sessions through the Crossroads Jobs, Bowman landed a cashier’s job at Tractor Supply Company’s Leesburg location. That position is now full time, and Bowman is a three-time employee of the month honoree. For Bowman, it was exactly the kind of workplace she was looking for.

“We’re like one family—here you’re not a number,” Bowman said.

Bowman’s daughter Aryn arrived in Loudoun as a shy young adult with no work experience beyond informal childcare. But Aryn dreamed of working with animals, and Crossroads helped make it happen.

“I was so worried because she had never had an interview. Carol made the interview process really easy,” Debbie Bowman said.

Aryn was hired as bather at Leesburg’s PetSmart location and has worked her way up to groomer-in-training. The two women now rent an apartment in Leesburg, and Bowman said Crossroads has helped them build independence and confidence.

Smith launched the nonprofit in 2012, on a mission to help Loudouners with hurdles to finding and retaining jobs.

Smith had spent time in Washington, DC, working for the established nonprofit jobs program Jubilee Jobs. After moving to Loudoun in the mid-90s and raising her children, she wanted to create a similar program in her fast-growing suburb.

“It always called me back,” Smith said. “I just kept thinking I’d love to do this again.”

Smith surveyed several local nonprofits serving low-income Loudouners about the need for additional employment services, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Crossroads Jobs started as an all-volunteer organization, but by 2016, grant funding allowed Smith to hire a small staff. She noticed a need for support in Loudoun’s Spanish-speaking community and began hiring bilingual job counselors in 2017. One of Smith’s early hires, Yanci Portillo, now runs the organization’s Sterling office, which opened a year ago, with support from a second bilingual counselor, Catherine Harris.

Debbie Bowman checks out a customer at Tractor Supply.

Smith said the organization usually assists 100 to 120 applicants each year. It’s a relatively small number, she added, because the organization focuses on spending time with applicants to match them with jobs that will work long term. Crossroads also provides ongoing post-placement support to help applicants navigate the workplace.

“We get to know our applicants. We get to know their story. We get to help them find that job that they need,” Portillo said.

For counselors and applicants, Crossroads Jobs is way beyond a job placement service. Most candidates come to the nonprofit unemployed and may have troubled or patchy work histories and gaps in employment. Some applicants have criminal records and others are experiencing homelessness. Crossroads helps applicants overcome hurdles and build skills to help them function in the workplace. The nonprofit refers candidates to Loudoun Literacy Council and faith-based organizations for English classes. Crossroads also connects applicants with Women Giving Back and local thrift stores to help candidates find outfits for interviews and the workplace.

“No one who walks through this door is judged by where they’re at. We look at each person as a fellow human being. What we try to do is find the right job,” Smith said.

Candidates must complete Crossroads’ full program, which includes workshops on interviewing skills, conflict resolution and goal-setting, to qualify for a job placement. Smith said the concept is based on fostering independence and “giving people tools for their toolbox to be able to help themselves as well.”

Crossroads’ role includes follow-up with both candidates and employers and post-placement support. In the Leesburg office, which is home base to Smith and counselors Lisa Martin and Betsy Coffey-Chaudet, the organization is also ramping up programs to serve candidates with disabilities. Smith said 10 to 20 percent of the organization’s candidates have disabilities, and job retention can be challenging for that group. Coffey-Chaudet, a retired LCPS special education teacher, focuses on helping candidates with disabilities to help them stay in their jobs through ongoing post-placement job coaching and support.

Smith said placements slowed during the worst of the pandemic, but with the job market coming back this spring, Crossroads finds itself in a new situation: it now has more employer requests than candidates. Smith is working to get the word out among job seekers, even those with gaps in employment history.

Smith said many candidates turn to Crossroads after a move, a domestic situation or traumatic life event.

When Joy Thompson moved from New York to Sterling to be near her adult children, she went through Crossroads for help in finding a job as a caregiver. Thompson, who grew up in Jamaica and was raised by her grandparents, has a passion for elder care and worked in that role in New York. Crossroads helped her find a job with a local agency and then with a senior care facility. For Thompson, working with Crossroads helped her cut through the sense of paddling in circles that often hits job seekers in a new environment.

“That’s what people need—someone who can point them in the right direction,” Thompson said. “If not, you get bounced around a lot.”

Last August, Thompson launched her own home care agency, Joyous Heart Care LLC and now has three employees.Her plan is to bring things full circle and hire from Crossroads.

“The best thing that happened for me was going through Crossroads,” Thompson said. “I want to give back for what they did for me.”

Around 60 percent of the organization’s applicants are Latinx, and 70 percent are women, Smith said. Adding bilingual counselors, including the dynamic Portillo, a well-connected volunteer in her Sterling community, has helped Crossroads reach an important population—and has helped employers find bilingual employees.

Leesburg’s Healthworks community health clinic needs bilingual staff for healthcare and administrative roles, and Crossroads has placed 10 employees at the clinic so far. Natalia Lopez was one of Portillo’s first clients as a job counselor, and Portillo immediately knew she was bound for success.

“She had so much potential,” Portillo said.

Lopez moved from El Salvador, where she had trained as a nursing assistant, to Leesburg five years ago. After graduating from Loudoun County High School, Lopez turned to Crossroads to help her find a healthcare job. Healthworks hired Lopez to work the front desk in 2018. Three years later, she’s managing the clinic’s call center. Lopez said she was initially interested in the nursing side of the field, but Crossroads helped her find her calling in healthcare administration.

“I really like the mission of helping the patients and helping the community,” Lopez said. “This is my second home.”

For more information about Crossroads Jobs, go to crossroadsjobs.org.

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