How Employment Support Made a Difference for Jonel Freeman

November 3, 2021

“If you’re really serious about changing your life? Way Finders is the way to go.” 

Every so often, when the stars align, we may cross paths with someone who shines just the right light—and helps us see the way forward. For Jonel Freeman, a 2014 graduate of the Westover Job Corp’s Advanced Culinary Arts program, this person is Way Finders Employment Specialist Madeline Martinez.  

“Madeline is really about taking her job seriously and wanting to help,” Jonel says. “I haven’t seen that much dedication and hard work in a worker in a very, very long time. I actually just saw her the other day, she came and dropped off some gas cards for me, so I could fill my tank up to get to work, which was a big help.” 

Jonel relocated to Massachusetts with her three-year-old daughter from Bridgeport, Connecticut, where, despite working two jobs, she was unable to afford her rent. She wound up losing everything and moved north, right before the start of a global pandemic. Her plan, which was to stay with family, didn’t work out.  

“I had no choice but to go into a shelter,” says Jonel, of her move to a Way Finders Residential Resource Center. “I started over from there. And I stayed for no more than a month and a half because I was ecstatic to get out. My daughter, she’s been my main motivation—knowing she deserves better. Today I’m living in Holyoke, paying market rent. I’m able to afford my utilities and take care of my family, and I’m saving to get to the next steps in life.”  

Her brief stay in the shelter program proved a key steppingstone: There she connected with case managers Tatyana Perez and Suzanne Vasquez, who helped Jonel find an affordable apartment. Jonel used HomeBASE funds—awarded by the state to help families successfully move on from emergency shelter assistance—to pay rent in advance, in addition to utilities. She received various donations, too—a couch, beds, nightstands. And she was also able to vent her frustrations to an onsite counselor—a decision that helped her maintain a positive attitude in her relationship with her daughter. 

“I kept her close, you know. As long as she had me, she was OK,” Jonel says of her daughter’s mindset during this time of transition.  

Tatyana also connected Jonel with Way Finders Employment Support Services—and Madeline. 

“Madeline gave me a referral to Valley Opportunity Council to get my daughter enrolled in daycare,” Jonel says. “Until then I’d been basically at a standstill, I had my daughter 24/7. Once I got her in daycare, then I could focus on looking for employment.” 

Jonel has seen her daughter grow and thrive at daycare, where she’s interacting with other children and learning new skills. “She loves to paint and play Legos,” says Jonel. “When she arrives, her classmates greet her and they’re happy to see her. She’s a happy, bright girl.” 

Another barrier to employment that Madeline helped to smooth? Reliable transportation.  

“It’s a huge barrier for people if they can’t get from point A to point B!” Jonel says. “Madeline was on the ball, she set me up with road lessons and helped me get my driver’s license. And eventually Way Finders provided me a vehicle. I got a 2011 Hyundai Sonata. It’s my first vehicle, so it definitely means a lot to me. I couldn’t be more thankful.” 

Employment Supportive Services was able to purchase a car for Jonel due to the extra funding Way Finders received from the state during the pandemic.  

Being to check “Yes—I have reliable transportation” on job applications has brought Jonel more responses from employers. Earlier this year, she worked a part-time seasonal job at Yankee Candle in Whately, and recently began a new part-time job at Chick-fil-A in Chicopee. 

“I’m a prep cook,” says Jonel, who has worked in the food industry for many years. “I just want to move up in the culinary field. To a sous chef or line cook, whatever it is, I’m willing to do that.” 

With Madeline’s encouragement, Jonel is imagining homeownership, too. “That’s my goal. I’m giving myself five years,” Jonel says. “Madeline explained things to me, and how you can build on your credit and pay off what you owe. She was like, ‘You will definitely qualify for a home!’”   

Outside of work, Jonel enjoys reading books of all genres, taking her daughter to the park, and flexing her culinary muscles. “Oh, I love making stews. Beef stew, chicken stew, oxtail stew,” Jonel says. “I’ll load that bad boy with carrots, peas, potatoes. It will last you for a while!” 

To others who may be facing similar changes, Jonel shares these words of encouragement: “Don’t be afraid. Keep your head up high, look forward, and don’t look back. And if you’re really serious about changing your life, Way Finders is the way to go. You’re not waiting one or two years like other programs in other states. They are really on it, they will keep in contact with you.”