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July 9, 2004
Isabel McDevitt's Rewarding Work

Isabel McDevitt believes in hard work and temperance -- but she also believes in second chances. Ms. McDevitt is the director of community affairs and business development at the Doe Fund, a nonprofit that helps formerly homeless men and women gain the job experience and life skills they need to become self-sufficient.

"It is my personal belief, but also my experience, that economic development and workforce development, when linked, can provide the best path for someone to get back on their feet and then be able to maintain housing and sobriety," Ms. McDevitt said.

The Doe Fund's latest venture is Pest at Rest, an extermination company that employs eight trainees and one full-time professional. Ms. McDevitt built Pest at Rest from the ground up with a $75,000 start-up grant from the Robin Hood Foundation. "It was kind of an aggressive move for us to start a business. But it seemed like an easy thing to do, and it has been relatively easy," she said. Pest at Rest provides extermination services for the housing and training facilities of the Doe Fund and has also taken on outside clients.

"It's hard to get jobs for people with multiple incarcerations, low levels of education, and histories of substance abuse," Ms. McDevitt said. Part of her job is identifying industries that offer relatively good wages, are forgiving about background, and easy to break into. "I got a random call from a pest control company, and it clicked," she said.

Pest at Rest is in its seventh month and has a total of 11 contracts. Ms. McDevitt projects that 2004 revenues will be between $60,000 and $80,000 and that the company will be in the black by the end of 2005. As with all the Doe Fund's ventures, income after expenses is poured back into the Doe Fund. Ms. McDevitt oversees three other businesses designed to provide job education and experience to graduates of the Doe Fund's Ready,Willing and Able training program: Ready, Willing and Able offers housing and other services for about a year, after which participants must support themselves. Back Office of New York is a direct-mail business. The Doe Fund's food service operation produces a million meals a year.The best known venture is the Community Improvement Project, which puts about 275 trainees in blue uniforms to clean the streets of New York.

"My role is trying to create the best possible environment for people to have to go to work everyday -- one that is professional, cares about quality control, and is run with a good budget," Ms. McDevitt said. This unassuming 29-year-old was educated at the Milton Academy and the University of Pennsylvania. Yet she easily connects with her colleagues, 75% of whom are Doe Fund graduates.

"It's possible to grow up in Maine and be from a privileged background and get involved and embrace social problems and come up with solutions," she said.

Ms. McDevitt started at the Doe Fund as a job developer before she moved to headquarters to assume a senior management position. She spends most of her 11-hour days out of the office, crisscrossing the city to meet with staff and representatives of city and social service agencies. Her cell phone and Blackberry are always within reach.

She has abandoned the idea of going to business school. "I already have the job I would want," she said. "I get calls from Columbia M.B.A.s wanting my job."

Ms. McDevitt is not easy to daunt. When she started as a job trainer, for the first time, she was the only white person in the room."I was teaching a class called Life Skills, when the people in the class had much more life experience than me. It was a joke," she said.

"But then I realized it's all about the attitude. I didn't pretend I had the answers. The philosophy of [the Doe Fund] is not providing the answers. It's saying, here is an opportunity, here are resources, we support you in choosing your path. There are rules, but there is not a lot of condescension."

She misses her work one-on-one with trainees. "When I see a guy in the street and I don't recognize him and he doesn't recognize me, that affects me because I used to know every single face almost." "But I realized that I was going to have a greater impact for the organization ? because I have the ability -- whether from upbringing or instinct -- to go from a meeting with the commissioner, and being able to talk that talk, to going to a guy on the street and saying, ?Hey buddy, how's the program?'" Some of her proudest moments come down to individuals she helped.

"I helped one guy get a job with the Iron Worker's Union, which pays something like $27 an hour, which is huge," she said.

Then there was the Doe Fund trainee whose talk in front of group of potential employers was so impressive,"The Gap and Central Parking System fought over him, they loved him so much," she said. The man accepted a job with the Gap.

The success stories keep her going. "There are guys who after three months in the program are angry and don't want to be here. Nine months later, they've stuck it out and get good jobs and become successes. It's the reason that I don't burn out," Ms. McDevitt said

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