Our Stories

Crossing a Bridge to Success: One Mother’s Story

In honor of Mother’s Day, we are sharing the story of Paulette Arnold, a single parent of four who is turning her family’s financial life around—and building a rewarding career—after completing a LISC-supported Bridges to Opportunity program in San Diego.

Two years ago, Paulette Arnold, a single parent living south of San Diego, could list enough work experience to fill a book. After serving a total of 10 years in the Navy and Army, she worked a series of mostly part-time and seasonal jobs, ranging from correc­tions officer to school cook. Yet Arnold and her four school-aged children were barely getting by.

“I had jobs, but they didn’t do it,” Arnold said. “Nothing long-lasting and nothing moving towards a career.”

One day, she happened on a flyer from San Diego’s branch of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), where LISC runs a Bridges to Career and Financial Opportunity Center (FOC). It advertised a pre-construction apprenticeship. “‘I’d like to do something like that,’” Arnold recalled thinking. “I’d like to work with my hands.”

Paulette Arnold, ready for work.
Paulette Arnold, ready for work.

The center also offered additional instruc­tion to advance clients’ readiness in math and literacy. “Clients need help with both hard and soft employment skills, and with navigating complex certification processes,” explained Seung Kim, director of LISC’s finan­cial stability initiatives. “We aim to close that achievement gap so clients can ready them­selves for family-sustaining jobs with room for advancement—and personal fulfillment,” she said.

Arnold enrolled in the free Building Trades Pre-Apprenticeship program, which also included financial coaching, to help her tackle her debt and begin building a positive credit rating. But just as valuable, she said, was the free math class that met four times a week: “I needed to know fractions for carpentry, and I wasn’t good at that.”

Within five months, she had enough math facts under her belt to apply and get accepted into a union apprentice job at Kaiser Construction—a rigorous process Arnold’s career coach helped guide her through.

“The Bridges program provides that web of support and education, and someone to hold you accountable for following through on your goals.”
— Jessica Wawrzyniak, International Rescue Committee FOC, San Diego

One of Arnold’s coaches, Jessica Wawrzyniak, recalled how Arnold flourished among her peers and mentors, forging the kind of bonds that are a huge part of what makes the program so successful. “The Bridges program provides that web of support and education, and someone to hold you accountable for following through on your goals,” Wawrzyniak said. “A lot of the people we work with are really in crisis when they arrive. We help put into place the supports they need to develop confidence in their abilities.”

(The center where Arnold went for support is located in an area of San Diego that was recently designated as an “Opportunity Zone” by the state of California, part of a new federal tax incentive program focused on underinvested communities.)

The goal of the initiative is to connect talent to jobs in growth industries that need trained workers, including health care, transportation and construction. In fact, a 2017 survey by the Associated General Contractors of America found nearly three-quarters of U.S. construction firms were experiencing a serious shortage of qualified employees. In San Diego, where construction spending is at an all-time high, demand is acute.

Arnold now does framing, drywall installation and demo carpentry for Kaiser, at a starting wage of $15.80 an hour. She will earn an increase of two dollars an hour every six months after completing her apprenticeship classes and on-the-job training. And thanks to her work with a financial coach, in just one year, she has increased her credit score from 534 to nearly 600, and resolved six onerous debt collections that totaled some $40,000.

Arnold’s home life has brightened, too: this spring, her oldest son will graduate from high school and head to a local college with a robust financial aid package. Arnold would also like to one day buy a pick-up truck to use for construction projects. But her most pressing goal, she said, is to save.

“I want to have enough,” she said, “that if I ever get into financial hardship again, I’ll be able to withstand it.”