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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Program Helps People on Public Assistance Become Self-Sufficient

LAS CRUCES - After 10 years in a blue-collar job, Corrie Stone knew she wanted more out of life for herself and her daughter, but how does a single mother take on the challenge of supporting a household and raising a child while completing a college education?

New Mexico Works Associate Director Laura Orta, left, and program coordinator Natalie Peņa look over paperwork at one of the program's offices in Las Cruces. The program serves about 1,700 clients, offering them a wide range of services, from training, education and job placement resources to transportation, financial aid and access to daycare. (NMSU Agricultural Communications photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

Stone's determination to better herself led to the New Mexico Works Program, and after three years of full-time study at New Mexico State University and the assistance of the program, she earned a bachelor's degree in business administration.

"I honestly believe that I never could have attained my bachelor's degree without the support and friendship of everyone that helped me in the New Mexico Works office," Stone said.

New Mexico Works is a state Human Services Department Income Support Division program administered by New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service in southern New Mexico. The program is based in Las Cruces but serves about 1,700 clients across Catron, Doņa Ana, Grant, Luna, Hidalgo, Sierra and Socorro counties, helping people make the transition from welfare to work.

When Stone began working on her degree in 2000, she quit her full-time job and sought benefits from the state for her family. As a recipient of assistance, she was required to participate in the New Mexico Works program, where one of the first steps was meeting her program specialist, Natalie Peņa.

"I have cried many tears of joy, sadness and frustration in her office," Stone said. "Eventually, I realized that any barrier I encountered, I could call New Mexico Works and find the resource to help me overcome my barrier. I found that I was respected as an individual, and not treated like a welfare recipient." Today, Stone is employed full-time with the Doņa Ana County Information Technology Department.

New Mexico Works Associate Director Laura Orta said the program offers a wide range of services, from training, education and job placement resources to transportation, financial aid and access to daycare, "anything they need to help them become self-sufficient, to help them obtain their career goals," Orta said. Specialists have dealt with issues like homelessness and domestic violence, as well.

Specialists help connect clients with resources to improve their skills, such as classes at NMSU, NMSU's Doņa Ana Branch Community College and the Mesquite Neighborhood Learning Center in Las Cruces, or training through the Department of Labor. Orta said some clients have entered the program with second-grade reading levels. Others may not speak English. People in the more rural areas may have trouble finding a job even if they learn valuable job skills.

"If they're not willing to move away to a bigger city to get skills or a job, they may have problems. There are not many self-sustaining jobs in small towns," Orta said. Changes in the rural communities, like the closing of a call center in Silver City and layoffs from mining operations in southwest New Mexico, have a big impact on the job market for their clients.

Despite the difficulties, the program has many success stories. People are learning computer and truck-driving skills. Clients have earned degrees in archaeology, engineering and teaching.

"I was able to learn not only what it entails to get a job, but insights on how to achieve personal goals as well as short- and long-term goals," Rudy Sias said. He landed a job with the State of New Mexico a month after joining the program.

"The New Mexico Works program and Angelo Vega, my case worker, were essential in getting me where I am," Elizabeth Gomez said. "I can see that involvement in the program encouraged me to hang in and complete the task which turned into a wonderful opportunity, to my astonishment." Gomez is now employed by the Office of the Governor.

New Mexico Works started in 1998, formed to help the state meet the requirements of the federal Welfare Reform Act of 1996. In 2005, more than 2,100 jobs were filled through New Mexico Works.

"We've come a long way," said Orta, who started with the program in 1999 as a case manager. "Through the years you build a rapport, almost a friendship with your clients. They come here to get help and we help them.

"The clientele realizes now, too, this isn't an entitlement program anymore. People are actually taking advantage of the program," she said. "We've come from one of those things you have to go through to, 'Wow, they're helping me.'"