Military veteran Shane Kerr doesn’t mind getting dirt under his fingernails or ending his day with a sore muscle or two.

It’s apparently a small price to pay for financial stability and the dignity of a hard day’s work.

“I like to excel,” he said. “I take pride in everything I do.”

Kerr, 39, is a new face around The Home Depot, having landed employment with the corporation after a prolonged period of personal and financial struggles.

The Marine Corps veteran and career pipeline worker is among a growing list of success stories coming out of East Texas Cornerstone Assistance Network, a faith-based nonprofit aimed at helping retrain and mentor the underemployed for a return to the workforce.

The nonprofit, operating off referrals from churches and charitable organizations, focuses on the philosophy that hard work and personal initiative helps grow success.

The approach seems to build confidence many people need to set and chase new goals.

“It’s going to be a great fit,” Kerr said of his new job. “Had Cornerstone not pushed me (to do a resume), I don’t know that I would have gotten it. I’m really very grateful … everything is falling into place.”

SERVING BY DOING

In many ways, Cornerstone could be described as among the best-kept secrets in East Texas for the working poor.

The agency works with people who are referred for services by area nonprofits and churches.

Clients accepted into the job-training program are offered opportunities to learn new skills through classes and in the workplace, from operating a computer and earning a GED to dressing for success.

Participants can be anyone from young parents juggling multiple jobs or seasoned workers in need of a career reboot.

Cornerstone deliberately keeps participant numbers small, to ensure meaningful engagement with mentors and volunteer tradesmen who lend specialized job training.

Operations are funded through donations and money gained from sales at its thrift store, a sprawling two-story bargain house bursting with gently used items offered at budget-friendly prices.

Cornerstone Development Director Dawn Moltzan describes agency operations as a safety net that helps struggling clients help themselves.

“This program is very different for every person in it,” she said. “It’s just a matter of who needs what.”

Kerr spent several weeks working at Cornerstone to re-learn skills that are desired in the workplace, earning accolades for his can-do spirit and “Mr. Fix It” mechanical abilities.

“Anything they need done, I do,” he said during his training period. “If I can’t figure it out, I spend a little time figuring out how to get it done.”

Kerr’s new job gives him not just renewed confidence, it is helping build a future, thanks to his faith, Rose Heights Church and Cornerstone.

“God scooped me out of the fire,” he said. “I just got married again … life is going so good. I’m in a completely different place.”

POVERTY IN THE REGION

Intentional or not, Cornerstone’s efforts at reshaping lives are supporting a larger, regional effort to combat factors that create hardships on impoverished families.

A study compiled by the University of Texas System, in partnership with the former UT Health Northeast, revealed that Northeast Texas is experiencing a type of health crisis, due largely to poverty.

When people lack the means to care for their families, a simple issue such as a car repair can mean the difference between keeping and losing a job.

The economically disadvantaged are often faced with tough choices, such as choosing between medication for a health condition and buying food for their families.

Study results seem to support the latter. Experts are seeing evidence that socioeconomic strains are affecting the health and well-being of the entire region.

According to the UT study, the estimated 1.5 million people who call the Northeast Texas area home are sicker and dying earlier than counterparts in the rest of the state and United States, especially in Smith County where many pass away before retirement age.

Data suggests higher mortality rates in the area for the five leading causes of death in the United States — heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lower respiratory diseases and unintentional injury.

People are more likely to be obese, according to the report. They also are more likely to take their own lives, according to the data, which points to high suicide rates and mental health issues.

It’s not just adults affected.

Babies born in Smith County are especially at risk — the area is cited as having the highest rate of infant morality of all 254 counties in Texas and it is the only place in the state that’s not seen a decrease in its death rate since 2005, the data shows.

Dr. David L. Lakey, former Texas Commissioner of Health, now a vice chancellor at The University of Texas System and senior adviser for The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler, is among those concerned over the results.

“It becomes a question of, 'How do we keep people healthy?'” he said.

There are apparently myriad factors involved: tobacco use, demographics, environment, education, genetics, age, income and access to nutritious food, health care and safe neighborhoods, to name a few.

Other factors point to the fact that the area population is largely rural and slightly older than the rest of the state.

And while unemployment levels are slightly lower than the rest of the state, so are average wages, leaving many hardworking families at a disadvantage for even the most basic care and services.

Statistically, 4.9 percent of people living below the poverty level — currently listed as $12,140 for an individual — worked year-round, full-time jobs.

A goal of the study is to not only identify problems but also help experts pinpoint solutions that can help Northeast Texans lead longer, happier, healthier lives, Lakey said.

PUSHING BACK ON POVERTY

Cornerstone officials understand the issues of the working poor, and they are helping families push back against poverty.

“We’re trying to accomplish two goals,” said Gary Crim, program coordinator. “One is to teach people a vocational trade.”

The other goal, he said, is to provide a measure of support as people work toward a better life.

There are plenty of pitfalls and barriers to employment, such as prison records, a lack of work history and addiction issues.

“Some people don’t have an I.D.,” Crim said. “You can’t get a job without an I.D.”

Successes appear to vary, according to the individual.

Valerie, 34, a single mother of four, said she had a good job, but quit after her employer declined to accommodate work restrictions related to a pregnancy.

The move set off a torrent of hardships that culminated in a broken relationship, an eviction and homelessness.

“I wanted to take care of things myself,” she said. “I was telling myself, ‘I’m going to get through this,’ and what kept me going was looking after my kids.”

She sought assistance through Cornerstone while living in a homeless shelter and landed a new job a few weeks after the birth of her daughter, working 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. loading freight onto 18-wheelers.

Valerie later moved her children out of the shelter and into a rented mobile home, obtained child care and eventually earned enough money to move closer to her parents for family support.

“It’s been one heck of a journey,” she said. “I’m trying my best … Cornerstone was a big blessing for me and my kids. I honestly don’t know where I would be without them.”

Another success story centers on a client who lost his welding job after suffering an injury.

He approached Cornerstone for assistance in job retraining and the organization helped him plot an entirely new course for his life: starting his own business.

Cornerstone officials said they never tire of seeing people reinvent and find the future they so desperately seek.

“We are empowering people to do things for themselves,” said Moltzan, Cornerstone’s director of development. “It amounts to giving them a hand up rather than a hand out. To see them come alive … it’s really special to see them find that spark and hope again.”

TWITTER: @TMT_ Jacque

Reporter

Jacque Hilburn-Simmons is an award-winning journalist who has been writing professionally for 30 years. She's a former police reporter who also wrote a book about the KFC murder. She shares stories about East Texas through her Behind the Wheel column.

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