CAIRO — With cars lining the block and a busy showroom Wednesday, it is easy to say attendance for the Alexander County Housing Authority’s Alexander County Career and Resource Fair exceeded expectations.
“When we first started this, we was only planning for a handful, hoping that we could reach somebody,” said Warren Riley, manager for mobility services for Quadel Consulting and Training.
He said the more than 100 people who came through the doors of Mighty Rivers Church in Cairo far exceeded his “wildest imagination.”
Jill VanZandt, southern regional manager for the Illinois Department of Employment Security, was talking to people almost the moment the doors opened. She said she and her team were excited to work with individuals to find paths to gainful employment, and said the people who stopped by to chat and set up an appointment for IDES’ career services all were positive and enthusiastic.
Shelly Mallory was one of those people. The 57-year-old was born in Cairo and recently moved back. She said she hasn’t had steady employment in some time and has been “doing odds and ends” to get by. She said she came Wednesday to find some way to work.
“I’m not picky,” Mallory said. “I’m determined to work.”
She said she would even relocate if she could find a job — she wasn’t sentimental about staying in her hometown.
“I would move in a heartbeat,” she said.
She said she has always taught her children to not be dependent on others and she wants to live that example. “I don’t like to be depending on the government,” Mallory said.
The event was organized by the ACHA and partners like Man-Tra-Con, a regional employment solutions organization. Towanda Macon, the ACHA’s executive director, said Wednesday’s career fair was a way to live out the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s belief that housing authorities are more than just about helping community members find shelter.
“We want to provide people the opportunity to change their lives,” Macon said.
Riley has helped coordinate the relocation process for housing residents — it was announced in April that residents of the Elmwood and McBride housing developments would be forced to relocate after conditions in the apartment buildings were deemed unsafe. He said it soon became clear that residents needed more than help finding a roof over their heads.
“People were being relocated to different parts of the state, or even to different states, and when moving them, we realized that people were moving places but didn’t have a lot of resources and a lot of funds they needed to start a new way of life,” Riley said.
This is when MTC and other similar organizations got involved. Out of this involvement grew Wednesday’s career fair.
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The event was open to anyone in the surrounding area, not just housing residents. Representatives from a variety of employers and employment resource centers were there to talk with eager applicants.
Tairus Purchase said he’s been working off and on, some of it construction with his brother, since he was laid off by the city in 2015 — a job he had worked for 18 years. He, like Mallory, said he wasn’t picky. He was looking for “just about anything.”
He said while he didn’t want to have to relocate, he recognized the prospect of finding a job close to Cairo was a tough one.
“You gotta leave Cairo," Purchase said. "There ain’t no jobs here."
He said for many in town and the surrounding area, Wednesday’s job fair was “probably one of the best things that’s happened in a while.”
Tyrell Harris, 19, may have found his career Wednesday. After talking with a recruiter, he planned to sign on the dotted line Thursday over lunch, enlisting with the Marines. He said he has been out of high school for two years and found work at a chicken processing plant in Kentucky. However, because of transportation problems, he was recently let go.
He said he found the Marines so appealing because “it gets me out of here.”
“Cairo is a good place, but it don’t have many opportunities for young people,” Harris admitted.
He said his eye was caught by several job opportunities Wednesday but couldn’t pass up all that he saw the military could offer him.
Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti made an appearance at the start of the event and said it was an important step for the deep Southern Illinois community.
“This sort of event does provide hope and it also provides education,” she said, adding that many don’t realize the resources available to them from state and federal agencies.
While the job fair was not exclusively about housing residents, Macon did say that she was hopeful it would make a difference to those still in the relocation process. Of the 185 families HUD is helping relocate, Macon said about half have made the transition.
Macon said her office wants to make sure those who are relocating have exhausted all of their resources and make decisions using all the tools and information available to them, and she said Wednesday was part of that process.