Merlene Davis: Ky. training program teaches job skills to those who are struggling

Anath "A.C." Carter, left, and Brooke Spurrell were once on K-Tap, a federal transitional assistance program, and are now employed by Habitat for Humanity working at Lexington's ReStore outlet.
Anath "A.C." Carter, left, and Brooke Spurrell were once on K-Tap, a federal transitional assistance program, and are now employed by Habitat for Humanity working at Lexington's ReStore outlet. Herald-Leader

I have never gotten over the sting of standing in a grocery check-out lane with my food stamp coupons and overhearing the woman behind me make disparaging remarks about people on welfare.

That was more than 30 years ago, while I was earning a college degree, working an internship and caring for my daughter. I needed all of the $135 I received monthly, the food stamps, the medical card for my daughter, and the rent assistance just to hang on. The woman in the line assumed I was getting a handout, while I knew it was a hand-up.

That's how Brooke Spurrell and Anath "A.C." Carter perceive the benefits they received from the Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program, or K-TAP.

K-TAP provides financial and medical assistance to low-income dependent children and their parents or guardians through a federal grant. One component of the program is helping those adults find jobs or get the training needed to get a job.

"The goal is self-sufficiency," said Dee Dee Hightower, field services supervisor with the Kentucky Works Program, which helps adults obtain training or employment. "The federal government requires our clients to volunteer 20 hours a week at a not-for-profit that benefits the community if they are not in school full-time."

The idea is that those volunteer hours will serve as a means of training some of the clients to get to a workplace regularly and to learn new skills. Plus, the organization gets needed help.

According to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, there are 988 K-TAP cases in Fayette County, which includes 569 adults and 1,590 children.

Spurrell, 25 and the mother of a 4-year-old son, received K-TAP benefits while volunteering 20 hours a week at the Habitat ReStore and studying for an associates degree in accounting.

"I started out as a volunteer in October, 2011," she said. "I've now been employed here since June, 2012."

Lexington Habitat for Humanity is one of the not-for-profits in Lexington that has hired K-TAP volunteers for full- or part-time positions. That degree of success is not a given. In some areas of the state as well as locally, some organizations are not willing to expend the time necessary to nurture some K-TAP volunteers.

"Some of our clients are challenged," Hightower said. "They are not guaranteed to come in. Most of our clients have trouble getting up and going."

The program will teach clients how to ride LexTran buses if necessary or purchase an alarm clock or clothing if needed. K-TAP benefits, which is a bi-weekly cash payment dependent on the family size, plus $200 a month for transportation, have a lifetime limit of 60 months.

Spurrell, now the ReStore donor coordinator, left K-TAP because she earns enough now from her job. The ReStore is Habitat's retail outlet for furniture and home items.

Lexington Habitat for Humanity has accepted K-TAP volunteers for a number of years, said Dana Stefaniak, resource development director at Habitat.

"In our ReStore and administrative offices, we have gotten nothing short of amazing results," she said. "Most of them had not had the opportunity to work in a professional environment. We know they are in our organization to learn. We are purposeful in teaching them tasks that can carry them into other jobs."

Malcolm Ratchford, manager for neighborhood and community services at the Community Action Council, said CAC has about 12 K-TAP volunteers in three locations. They work as receptionists, intake workers and on the front desk.

"We treat them just like employees," he said. "When they are late, we call them; if they miss a date, the supervisor will talk to them."

CAC teaches the volunteers "soft skills" such as appropriate dress, professional attitudes, and interaction with the public. Then they bring in the technical side of the job, he said.

And for that, CAC gets a qualified worker who fills in the gaps, he said, and a living example of CAC's mission of helping those in need stand on their own.

A.C. Carter's story is a bit different from Spurrell's. Carter, 37, is the single father of 9-year-old twins he has reared alone since they were 3 months old. A knee injury and multiple surgeries convinced him to give up his job as a state corrections officer and try his hand at nursing or business management.

As he was signing up for financial aid, he was told about K-TAP. He turned up his nose at the idea at first, allowing his pride to stand in his way.

"I still had a little bit of money coming in and I had borrowed against my retirement," he said.

But, after talking with a worker, he realized K-TAP could be a leg up. He began volunteering at the ReStore in May 2011, and was hired on as a part-time worker about three months later. In January, he was promoted to shift manager at the store.

"This is my first love, business management," he said. "I have the ability to talk and work with people. I'd love to have my own store or be manager of a store. I'd like to be sitting on the board of directors, as long as I am able to work with the community. That is all my brothers and sisters know."

While a lot of the programs for single parents are geared toward women, Carter said more and more men are stepping into that role.

"I encourage men to at least look into it," he said.

And when they do, when they choose to become a K-TAP volunteer and receive a helping hand to regain their financial footing, the rest of us should be supportive and not judgmental.

"Not everybody who is on welfare is a bad person," Spurrell said. "Some are struggling to get by and just need a little extra push."

Spurrell, Carter and I are examples of that.

For More Information

To learn more about K-TAP, Kentucky Temporary Assistance Program, call (502) 564-3440 or visit