When Brad Lewis and Dr. Bill Lacewell, partners in United Financial Advisors, hit upon the idea to put together a program to address the needs of workers facing loss of employment in the current economic downturn, they envisioned something more modest than what has evolved.
Lewis said in discussions with friends, it became evident those facing layoffs had three major concerns: employment, health coverage and financial security.
Lewis said they considered organizing "a sit-down event" in which affected parties would meet with professionals, explore those issues and map out strategies. However, when they shared their vision with Miles Crawford, manager of Go Ye Employment Services, they found he was thinking of something bigger.
"Miles' idea was an expo," Lewis said.
Buoyed by combined enthusiasm, support from the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce and a host of businesses, service agencies and volunteers, organizers find themselves preparing to hold the region's first Work, Wealth and Wellness Expo.
The free event is 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, April 7, at the Fort Smith Convention Center, 55 S. Seventh St.
Businesses Offer Help
Crawford himself acknowledges the expo has benefited from a "snowball effect," as business after business signed on with offers of funding, merchandise and services.
A key partner in rolling that snowball was St. Edward Mercy Medical System. Jared Bryson, vice president of mission for the hospital, said it agreed to provide $2,500 in funding for the event. It also issued a challenge to others in the community to come up with a matching amount.
Bryson said recognizing the issues occurring in the local economy would affect the overall health of the community, Mercy officials saw the need to act.
"We wanted to bring our resources to bear," Bryson said, in the form of equipment and personnel to provide health screening for people who may have lost access to affordable health care with the loss of their job.
By issuing its challenge, Bryson said Mercy hoped to promote community involvement in efforts to help those facing the challenges that come with loss of employment.
"We want to increase their access to a good job," Bryson said. To accomplish that, the expo will offer help with preparing resumes. It will provide advice to those who have been on the job for decades on how to look for a job and how to prepare for job interviews.
Acknowledging he is "focusing on the work side" of the expo, Crawford said his main focus is to ensure those who attend the event have a good resume when they go into the job market.
"We will have HR (human resources) people here to help prepare them," he said.
A local office supply company is providing laptop computers, loaded with resume software, for the event. Another company has offered to print the job-search documents.
Combined resources of employment agencies will be used to provide information on jobs that may be available in the area.
Bryson said it is even "quite possible" that the hospital may benefit from the expo in supplementing its own work force.
"Mercy is not just Fort Smith.We have locations in northwest Arkansas, Hot Springs. If someone is looking for change and willing to relocate, and if the opportunity exists, we're open to that," he said.
Work, Wealth, Wellness
Lewis said the expo floor will be be divided into separate areas concentrating on the event's three main focuses: work, wealth and wellness.
In the work area will be representatives of employment organizations and services. Included in the wealth area will be financial and credit professionals. The wellness area will offer services by representatives of Mercy, Sparks, Western Arkansas Counseling and Guidance, and the Good Samaritan Clinic.
Lewis said another benefit of the expo is to alert participants to the various organizations available to them and to explain their services.
He said assistance in areas ranging from family counseling to loan information for someone planning to start their own business will be available.
The expo also offers diversion for younger family members who may accompany those seeking counsel. A separate room has been set aside where children will be cared for and entertained. Easter baskets have been prepared, a clown will entertain, and a sponsor has offered professional child-care services.
Though there seems to be ample support for the event among businesses and services, a big unknown for the expo is public acceptance.
"It could be a boom or it could be a bust," said Lacewell. Lewis too said there is risk.
Crawford said to minimize that risk, organizers have been working to get the word out about the event. News stories and advertisements have appeared in area media. Fliers have been posted at area plants and in union halls.
"I've been contacting organizations that are having events that day (the Saturday before Easter) and asking them to spread the word to people that we will be open as well," he said. "We hope to be able to piggyback a few Easter egg hunts and such."
Crawford expects a diverse crowd. "This is not organized just for Whirlpool workers," he said. "There are workers for a lot of their suppliers who are suffering too. Some of them are being overlooked."
Crawford said while state and federal organizations exist to offer help, many are becoming overwhelmed by the numbers of people showing up for help.He said events such as the expo provide an efficient, and hopefully effective, way to get help to people.
"There is no one-size-fits-all approach," he said. He noted some workers will not be interested in returning to the work force immediately. Some will opt for retraining or furthering their education. Others may pursue plans for self-employment, and others may decide to retire.
Crawford said while his main focus now is the April 7 event, he is hopeful the expo can become a regular -- perhaps annual -- event. He said another could focus on different aspects of employment, or even collect resources to address other community issues. The group could also incorporate as a not-for-profit entity, he said. For now, he and other organizers are gratified by the support for the event, and hopeful for its success.
"It looks to be a good idea that has come at the right time," Crawford said.
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