Aspiring nurse Melissa Alford has big dreams for her future.
Only two years ago, that future appeared bleak for the mother of three, who landed in a homeless shelter after losing her job.
With help from the Camden County One Stop Career Center, she has started to put her life back together with the hope of fulfilling a childhood dream. She became licensed as a certified nursing assistant, got an apartment, and found a full-time job.
Alford was recognized last month as Camden County’s honoree at a statewide program that recognizes those who have overcome extraordinary obstacles. She was selected to share her story with crowd of more than 300 people.
“I don’t mind telling people where I came from. Just like I don’t mind telling them where I am going,” she said in a recent interview.Alford and 14 others from across the state received the Sharon Dutra Memorial STAR Award at the annual Garden State Employment and Training Workforce Development conference in Atlantic City. Jerome Mason Sr. was selected for Gloucester County. There was no Burlington County recipient this year.
Alford, 47, was nominated by Sharon Stephens, her counselor in the One Stop program. She was the hands-down favorite. More than 600 people transition through the program annually.
“I am so proud of her. She set a goal, and she’s working on it,” Stephens said in an interview last week. “She’s worked very hard.”
Alford’s journey began around 2007 when she moved to Camden from Georgia to escape an abusive relationship. A nursing assistant for many years, she thought she could easily find a job here.
She was surprised to learn that New Jersey would not accept her out-of-state license. So she became an assistant manager at a fast-food restaurant and was employed for several years.
Meanwhile, Alford applied to the One Stop program, which offers grants for training. But she needed remediation with her reading and math skills to move forward.
By 2014, Alford found herself unemployed after an illness and living in a Camden homeless shelter for three months. She had no immediate family in the area.
“I knew that I had to get out of that shelter,” she said. “It’s life, and stuff happens.”
Alford resumed training to boost her basic skills scores, while working odd jobs part time. She eventually was awarded a grant to enroll in the Brooks Alternative School for training as a certified nursing assistant.
She completed the 90-hour program in four weeks and became certified. She landed a job at a Deptford nursing home within weeks, got off public assistance, and moved into an apartment in Camden.
“The bottom line is to help people get jobs,” said Jeffrey Swartz, president of the Workforce Investment Board for Camden County. “Jobs are still the most important goal for many Americans who are struggling to find jobs and a career path.”
Alford said her deep faith sustained her during the tough times, then and now. She focused on work, her family – three adult children – and her church, she said.
“Prayer is the only thing that keeps me going,” she said.
Her swift transition from homelessness to gainful employment on a promising career path stunned the counselors at One Stop, Stephens said. The state provides training through the program for about 5,700 annually.
“Her commitment and determination definitely were a standout for us,” said Frank Filipek Jr., director of the Camden County One Stop Resource Center. “She pushed herself.”
Alford has set her sights on nursing school. She completed additional training to become an EKG and phlebotomy technician.
As a youngster growing up in Georgia, she decided to pursue nursing after her grandfather suffered a heart attack.
“I just called 911 because I didn’t know what to do,” Alford said. “I said, ‘I’m going to be a nurse.’ ”
She currently works at Alaris Health in Cherry Hill, where she frequently works double shifts to earn extra money to pay for nursing school and buy a home.
“I have a long way to go,” she admits. “But I’ve got a plan.”
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