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March 29, 2009

Looking for work faithfullyParishes offer practical and spiritual help for job seekers

By Michelle Martin


When to go

  • HOPE Ministry
    7 p.m. first Tuesday of every month
    St. Elizabeth Seton church hall
    9300 167th St., Orland Hills
    For information: Steve, Sitzberger, (708) 712-2837
  • St. Hubert Job and Networking Ministry
    7-9:15 p.m. second and fourth Monday of each month
    6-7 p.m., second Monday of each month is the newcomers’ meeting
    729 Grand Canyon St., Hoffman Estates For information: (847) 885-7700 or
  • Interfaith Career Network
    7 p.m. first Thursday of the month: networking session at St. Francis Xavier Parish, Ogden and Spring avenues, LaGrange
    7 p.m third Thursday of the month: speaker session at St. John of the Cross Parish, 5005 S. Wolf Road, Western Springs quarterly resume reviews at St. Cletus Parish, 600 W. 55th St., LaGrange.
    For information: (708) 246-4404
  • St. Gertrude Unemployment Support Group
    Monday mornings St. Gertrude Parish, 1420 W. Granville Ave.
    For information: Peter Buttita, (773) 764-3621

Many other parishes have support groups and ministries for people who are unemployed. Call your local parish for information.

When times are tough, people turn to God. That’s what Katie Engel did, attending daily Mass after being laid off from her health care management job in November. But it was through her parish bulletin that she learned how to find practical as well as spiritual resources, when she read about the HOPE ministry at St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in Orland Hills.

“The power of prayer, that’s more important than anything for people to keep their spirits up,” Engel said. Being unemployed can give people the push they need to focus more on their spiritual lives, she believes.

“It’s kind of an awakening time to direct your attention towards that,” she said.

But it’s also a time to turn looking for a job into a job itself, she said.

That’s where HOPE (Helping Our Parishioners with Employment) comes in.

“We are an employment ministry,” said Steve Sitzberger, one of HOPE’s organizers. “We help with with interviews, resume- writing. We help with just about everything that has to do with the job search process. We try to gear them up for all the things we need to do to get them back into the work force.”

The HOPE ministry started 12 years ago, and it has never been more needed, Sitzberger said.

“Scariest I’ve seen it”

“This is probably the scariest I’ve seen it because there is so much uncertainty out there,” Sitzberger said.

When the group started, monthly meetings drew five or six people a month, he said. In February this year, there were about 50, and even more in March. Over those same months, unemployment in Illinois rose to 7.6 percent in January, and 8.6 percent in February.

“They’re coming from everything from white collar to blue collar to the housewife who is reentering the workforce because her husband has been laid off,” Sitzberger said. “They come for practical advice, but also for the moral support and the ability to relate. They realize there’s other people out there in the same boat.”

The Interfaith Career Network, a collaborative effort of St. John of the Cross Parish, Western Springs, and St. Cletus and St. Francis Xavier Parish, LaGrange, started in September as parishioners began to feel the need for employment help.

“We’re off to a pretty good roll,” said Tom Rohan of St. John of the Cross Parish, estimating that about 35 people usually attend the monthly networking meetings.

Bob Podgorski, one of the founders of the St. Hubert Job and Networking Ministry at St. Hubert Parish in Hoffman Estates has seen similar increases in attendance.

About 160 people attended their first March meeting, Podgorski said. Their average at the end of 2008 was 95 people at each meeting.

The group started in 2003 with a group of unemployed parishioners — including Podgorski, who has long since worked at Harper College in Palatine — who wanted to help one another.

Now they have helped more than 10,000 people with twice-monthly networking meetings at St. Hubert and frequent resume reviewing sessions and job-seeking seminars, mostly at a network of 27 other Northwest suburban houses of worship.

As the economy has declined, there’s no question more people are looking for work, Podgorski said.

“Every group seems to be seeing more people looking for career support services,” he said. “Over the last nearly six years, we’ve been able to amass a phenomenal amount of expertise in the job market. I would say in the near term, we’ll see a continuing deterioration of the market.”

Tom Wojcik knows what that feels like. He’s been unemployed — and attended HOPE meetings — twice since 2006, after working steadily for 29 years setting up and maintaining mainframe computers, first for the City of Chicago and then for the Chicago Board of Options Exchange.

He took an employee buyout in 2006, thinking he would easily find a new position, but he didn’t get a new job until July 2007, and then he was laid off by his new company in September 2008.

“It was a brand-new position for me to be out there with a resume looking for a job,” he said.

People who understand

HOPE became a place to share leads, to learn and to find people who understood what it was like to be out of a job.

He liked the way the group worked, its emphasis on practical advice like how to write a good resume, how to interview, how to find job leads.

“They talk about how to shape a resume appropriately, things prospective employers would be looking for to make your resume stand out.”

They also discuss how to use sites like and, where to find information about companies to cast a cover-letter or how to shine in an interview “An employer is not going to hire you just because you want to work,” Wojcik said. “The pool is so large, they can afford to be selective.”

As luck would have it, his former employer, the CBOE, was looking for someone to work on contract, transitioning away from the mainframe database he had once worked on at the end of last year. He’s been there on a contract basis, with no set end date, since December.

“It was a good relationship here when I left in ’06,” he said. “I was a good employee, I had a good relationship with them, so when they had a specific task that fit my skills, it was good for them and good for me.”

He would like to make the arrangement permanent and get benefits again. He has kept up COBRA payments from his insurance on the job he was laid off from last year, but it costs him $1,500 a month for family coverage.

Engel said her job isn’t ideal either, but it does have benefits. She, like most HOPE alumni who have found jobs, visited the meeting to tell her success story.

A new ministry

The Interfaith Career Network started in September, after St. John of the Cross had difficulty recruiting enough committee members for a similar ministry it started several years ago.

“We’re off to a pretty good roll,” Rohan said, estimating that about 35 people usually attend the monthly networking meetings (first Thursday of the month at St. Francis Xavier) and close to that number attend the monthly speaker sessions (third Thursday of the month at St. John of the Cross). Once a quarter, the network also does a resume review (at St. Cletus in LaGrange).

Peter Buttita, a pastoral associate at St. Gertrude Parish, said some of the people who attended weekly employment support group meetings his parish started in December have found work, but others come to replace them.

His group will refer people to other networking ministries for practical tips, their focus is on moral and spiritual support.

“We are discovering that latent within their moment of having lost a job and looking is a whole vocational question. Is this a moment of grace? What was it like at your previous job? What was it like to lose your job?”

The sessions are Monday mornings because that seems to be a hard time for people, he said.

“Our mantra is, ‘Through faith there is hope and through hope there is a future,’” said Podgorski, from St. Hubert’s Job and Networking Ministry. “I know that God played an extremely important role in my support system in finding a new opportunity in a totally different field and a different industry from what I was in before. I was certainly blessed by the Holy Spirit in my job search and in my life.”

The networking events draw a variety of people, with most coming from the ranks of senior management, supervisory positions or professionals. Smaller groups come from clerical and customer-service positions, and relatively few are hourly laborers, Podgorski said.

He’d like to see more laborers come to the meetings.

“Maybe they don’t see networking as something they should do,” he said. “But it is. If they make a good impression on somebody, that person might be in a position to hire them in the future. And they are in exactly the same situation. They are unemployed.”

The ministry also hosts a job board with about 20 new postings a day, along with information about other career-building events and groups. Because it makes no money — all speakers and resume reviewers are volunteers, and any costs are defrayed by donations — it will post information about other employment groups, even those meeting at the same time as the jobs and networking ministry.

What none of the groups can do is give their members a job.

“We give them all the encouragement we can,” Sitzberger said.

“When they come in, they’re a little bit downhearted.”

In the best case, Podgorski said, the economy could start to pull out of the recession by the third quarter of next year. But that’s not a guarantee, and in the meantime, the St. Hubert Jobs and Networking Ministry will see more people.