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Akeley group says ‘Yes, You Can!’

Among the Yes, You Can! mentors are, from left, Lorna Olson-Cooper, Peg Davies, Janice Knutson and Gloria Thomsen. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

The century-old First Lutheran Church of Akeley holds a grand repository of possibilities, a corps of volunteers encouraging the underemployed and unemployed with a message: 

“Yes, You Can!”

No ordinary “church basement ladies” are these. The initiative is a vibrant “outreach to the community.”

The Yes, You Can mentors/volunteers work one-on-one with clients to hone job interview skills, writing a resumé, learning basic computer skills and more.

The refurbished lower level of the church holds a welcoming, professional ambiance. State-of-the-art computers are available. Business clothing for men and women, shoes and toiletries displayed in retail fashion, are ready to be claimed for a job interview.

A beautician is on call to prepare clientele to head out with confidence to find and retain a job.

The program began when individuals volunteering with the UCAN (United Congregations of Akeley and Nevis) saw a need to help people find and keep employment.

The WorkForce Center in Park Rapids had closed. The closest locations for people needing to upgrade job search skills are in Bemidji and Brainerd.

Some who search for work have no money for gas ­- or a car ­- to get to job interviews. Some have no child care. Some have been incarcerated, and face the incumbent obstacles.

Lorna Olson-Cooper was attending a conference in New York when she learned grants are available to start a program addressing the needs.

A team formed. A human resource specialist was consulted. A job coaching skill manual was developed. And a grant proposal was submitted to the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, “modest funding” subsequently awarded in 2010.

Volunteers -­ men and women ­- worked to renovate and paint the church’s former fellowship hall. Yes, You Can is an independent entity. “This is not church sponsored,” Olson-Cooper explained.

“We’ve developed a process,” Olson-Cooper said of readying clients to meet success. That includes filling out a sample job application. Records are kept of each client’s progress. Handbooks are available with information and resources.

“We build a confidence level,” Peg Davies explained, which may include acquiring a GED.

“We provide a listening ear; we do not enable,” Olson-Cooper emphasized. “We won’t be taken advantage of.”

Akeley resident Cindy Lecy was making a career change and needed to compile a résumé. Davies referred her to Jeanne Gaston, who holds an advanced degree in education.

“The program is amazing,” Lecy said. They offered gas money, clothes and help with the cost and design of an ad for the business she determined to pursue – painting contractor.

“It’s wonderful. They open their arms and say ‘come on in,’” Lecy said. But the program is a reflection of Akeley as a whole, the Audrey’s Purple Dream beneficiary pointed out.

Another client without her high school diploma was encouraged to make an application and test for her GED. Yes, You Can! provided funds to drive to the test site, the client passing the exam.

A newly separated woman asked for assistance in gathering and organizing her college credits. Mission accomplished.

Yes, You Can! clients are made aware of National Career Readiness Certification, which uses assessments to verify to employers that an individual has essential employability skills. “It assesses the full potential of an applicant,” Olson-Cooper said.

Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development also has a skills assessment program, she said.

Working closely as a team, each member shares areas of expertise ­- from backgrounds in education to insurance and real estate to security and others ­- enhancing the quality of the outreach.

The program reverses an I-can’t-do-it notion to yes, you can, Olson-Cooper said.

Since its inception, about 100 have come through the doorway, reaching “different steps” in the program. Ages range from high school dropouts to people in their 40s and 50s. “Our impact varies.

“We will do whatever,” Olson-Cooper said. “We’re open to all, not a single territory.” Clients arrive from a 30-mile-plus radius.

“We hold ourselves accountable for every dollar that goes in or out,” Olson-Cooper emphasized.

Itasca-Mantrap has provided grants and townships and community groups have offered financial support.

Challenges faced by the team are tracking down scholarships, networking with community businesses, sustaining financial resources and continuing education for the volunteers.

“This team believes in people,” she said. “Akeley is a community of caring and outreach. We help people who need encouragement, who don’t believe in themselves make changes in their lives.”

Hours of consultation are from 10 a.m. to noon Tuesdays. For more information, call 652-3335 and leave a message. Or visit