Working faith

(First published in the June 27, 2019 issue of City Pages)

Quietly happening in Wausau, the Joseph Project is helping people get jobs and change their lives


Yauo Yang teaching the final class in the current session of the Joseph Project last week at the YWCA.

Yauo Yang didn’t mince words as he spoke in front of an audience of nine last Thursday night. “You gotta stop making excuses,” Yang said, his voice forceful, projecting, and serious. “No more excuses for why you don’t show up at work.”

That was one of three main points Yang wanted to get across. He told them about an employee, just like them, who’d called in sick too many times and lost their job. “It’s not brain science. If you don’t show up, you’re not going to be there.”

Yang talked about Lombardi time, referring to the famed Green Bay Packers coach, Vince Lombardi, who insisted players be “on time” by arriving 15 minutes early. He told them they need to take responsibility for themselves. That everyone needs to grow up — the audience was all adults.

Those at the Wausau YWCA that night clearly took Yang’s words seriously. So do others in the community and around the state. This was graduation night for people in the job-pairing Joseph Project, and local business and industry professionals were there, as were representatives of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Congressman Sean Duffy.

Yang could be considered something of a Lombardi figure himself, and this Thursday evening speech was a final pep talk before those nine individuals go to perform. They’re the latest to take part in the Joseph Project. Started by a pastor in Milwaukee, the program aims help those down on their luck find a job.

Perhaps a better way to put it is that the program gives people the tools to get a job themselves. It’s open to anyone who doesn’t have a job, but most participants have seen some kind of trouble with the law, addiction issues, or both.

Ultimately the graduates will interview for jobs with either Crystal Finishing or Kolbe and Kolbe, businesses that have partnered with the project.

Wausau is the first satellite of the Milwaukee-based Joseph Project, which Yang brought to Wausau as pastor and founder of The Cross church, which holds services at the YWCA. His mission is to help the homeless and less fortunate.

But Yang is no softie. An Iraq War veteran, Yang is serious, dedicated and mission oriented. His approach to the Joseph Project, much like Milwaukee’s, is very much tough love.

If that sounds off-putting, it seems have the opposite effect. Participants interviewed by City Pages echoed much of what Yang says, and some are motivated by the thought of coming back after being successful in their jobs just to tell Yang about it.

Finding jobs


Megan Higgins participates in a mock interview as part of the Joseph Project Thursday at the YWCA.

Megan Higgins was a little nervous. Higgins moved to Wausau from Merrill in May, having come from a tough home life and getting in some trouble with the law because of her drug addiction. She’d gone through one of what would be at least two mock interview sessions, done by business volunteers from the community.

The mock interviews were more nerve wrecking than the actual interview the next day, Higgins said. Aiming to get a job with Crystal Finishing, she knew what to expect with that interview.

Despite some nerves, the 28-year-old was confident. She would get this job, she said. And if not, she will interview with Kolbe and Kolbe, or another place until she’s hired.

Higgins feels confident because her life is turning around. She’s a recovering addict, now six months sober. She lost her mother to drug addiction last year. She had resorted to fraud or burglary to support her drug habit.

Yang’s Joseph Project “Let’s Go to Work”shop taught her that she has value, that she matters, and that her decisions are important. “Because of the bad decisions I made, I didn’t think that I could get a job, or that someone would look at me like I’m a human,” Higgins says.

That changed last week after attending nightly classes Monday through Thursday, culminating in the mock interviews. She now has people such as Yang who care about what happens to her. She was so inspired that she even joined Yang’s church, The Cross. “Here they welcome you, they cheer you on,” Higgins says of the Joseph Project. “They’re like your backup, your cheerleaders. It feels nice, like you can succeed.”

For some others, the impacts were even more immediate.

Scott Newcomer, 56, had a successful career as a carpenter. Originally from southern California, he moved to Wisconsin so that his wife could be near her mother in Prentice. They divorced in 2000, and after his seventh OWI, Newcomer went to prison. He was released in April, and has been living at the Salvation Army, where he learned about the Joseph Project.

For Newcomer, the classes were about instilling a sense of personal responsibility, and helping him through the job search process. A skilled carpenter with plenty of experience, through the Joseph Project he put together a resume and posted it through the Job Center. He never needed to do that before, because he had found all the work he needed either through word of mouth or through help wanted ads. Within only a couple of hours of posting his resume he got a call about a carpentry job.

Still, Newcomer says he’s going through with the factory interview. Best to follow through with what you started. That’s what the day is all about.

Joseph Project started in Milwaukee through a partnership between Sen. Ron Johnson and pastor Jerome Smith of Greater Praise Church of Praise of Christ in Milwaukee. After surviving a suicide attempt, Smith became a pastor and helped found the Joseph Project to bridge the gap between manufacturers struggling to find people, and people who said they can’t find jobs.

The program is now in three Wisconsin communities, and all administered through a church. Wausau’s was the first outside of Milwaukee.

Wausau’s version of the program was started in 2017 by a Medical College of Wisconsin student, Chris Zeman, who worked with Sen. Johnson’s office as part of his community-based health project at MCW. They reached out to Yang to teach a spiritual class, and later Zeman ended up teaching additional classes. In 2018 Zeman graduated and planned to move for his residency; that left the program without a leader.

Of course Yang stepped in. “Now I’m the guy who’s leading it,” Yang says matter of factly.

Yang’s first class this year was in March. This most recent one was the second under Yang’s leadership and the eighth overall.

Anyone is welcome to apply. The only requirement is that participants be honest about any past criminal offenses (the program does run a background check). No one is denied because of a criminal offense, Yang says. That way “we’re able to say these are honest individuals looking for a second chance to find employment in the community,” Yang says. They’ve had participants come to the program right after going through the Lakeside Recovery addiction treatment program at North Central Health Care, for example.

If they make it through the four evening classes at the YWCA — they show up to every session and participate in the classes that cover job skills and life skills, and train them to take responsibility for themselves — they’re guaranteed an interview with either Crystal Finishing or Kolbe and Kolbe. The program draws between 10-15 people and typically a few drop out by the end; 60 total have graduated.

June’s class went better than March’s. In March, 14 signed up, but only eight showed up for the first day of class and only six graduated.

On Thursday, nine students graduated after completing their mock interviews. So far about 90% of their graduates get hired on, Yang says. “It’s a nice vetting process,” Yang says. “We don’t want to throw these folks at Crystal Finishing or Kolbe and Kolbe and it doesn’t work out because they don’t show up.”

The Joseph Project thought about transportation too. Anyone successfully hired gets picked up in a van and provided free transportation for the first 30 days. After that there is a small fee for the service. The idea though is that eventually they will find their own source of transportation — Yang on Thursday went over the steps to buying a car, the first one being to get their driver’s license.

The project came to the attention of leaders at Kolbe and Kolbe after its VP of Human Resources, Ann Micholic, attended a Hunger and Homelessness Summit in Dec. of 2016. After talking with a local pastor, Ray Slatton, about the Milwaukee based project, they decided it needed to happen in the Wausau area.

Since then, Kolbe and Kolbe has hired 30 people through the program including the most recent graduates, Micholic says. They are hiring six of the participants from last week’s session. Kolbe only has first shift, so it’s helpful to have Crystal Finishing involved too, which has other work shifts.

Employers can see the benefits of the program, Micholic says. She attends Monday evening classes to talk about Kolbe and Kolbe and the work they do, and says interviewees often repeat the things Yang tells them during the courses. The things he tells them, along with his support, really seems to stick. “I interviewed one of the candidates, and he said ‘Yauo gave me hope. He gave me the courage and strength to move forward,’” Micholic says. “That is huge.”

The program works two ways, putting job candidates in front of employers, and giving employment opportunities to those trying to reshape their lives. But Micholic says the program is important enough even outside of those benefits that it’s a great fit for Kolbe and Kolbe. “We will remain a partner as long as it’s available,” Micholic says. “There are so many people who need help and are wanting to change their lives, who want a second step. We’re so happy to be there for them to take those first steps.”

A good step forward


Scott Newcomer participates in a mock interview Thursday as part of the Joseph Project at the YWCA.

Like Newcomer, Dale Johnson, 39, already has his own employment prospects — he interviewed with Veritas Steel and was hired. Johnson, out in May after 18 months in Marathon County Jail, had just taken the drug screening, before Thursday’s graduation, for his new employer, who wanted him to start earlier. But it was important for Johnson to make his way through the program. To finish what he started.

Being surrounded by other people from similar situations, also trying to turn their lives around, proved invaluable. He learned how to present himself in interviews, thinking about posture and the words he choses, and knowing the right questions and answers during an interview.

Advice about conduct on the job was even offered— maybe the kind of advice anyone should take to heart.

Paul Chamberlain, from Sen. Johnson’s office, told the group assembled Thursday about the importance of emotional intelligence; in this case, when to pick and choose battles. “Don’t lose your job because it’s more important to you to win an argument than to keep your job,” Chamberlain said. Prior to the Thursday classes, he helped a student perfect his tie-tying technique.

Advice like that from people in high places is appreciated, Dale Johnson says. “To have them behind you, to give you advice, and being to work with area employers” meant a lot.

For others such as Higgins, Friday was interview day, the day in which they would interview with their employer of choice; either Kolbe and Kolbe or Crystal Finishing.

Higgins did well in her mock interviews. She confidently answered questions, gave good responses, appeared relaxed. Higgins said her goal was to be able to come back and tell Yang about her successes.

“I want to save up some money, get my own place, and feel like an adult,” Higgins says. “I want to come back to Pastor Yauo and say ‘Look, I’m still working at this job this many months later.’ He’s putting so much time and effort into this. I want to do that to show him I can succeed.”