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How Cleanslate Did Not Relax in a Pandemic

Cara Staff

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, our Cleanslate team had no time to relax. Immediately, we sprung into action to determine how to keep our workers safe, while continuing to provide the essential services our neighborhoods counted on.



Back in early March, Cleanslate, our flagship social enterprise, was making plans to broaden our reach into new regional communities while gearing up for a busy Chicago festival season anticipating our crews servicing three dozen events. Just days later, festivals started cancelling and our regular operations were put on pause as a Stay at Home Order was enacted for the state of Illinois and Cleanslate’s operations were suspended.

Immediately, we sprang into action to come up with measures that would keep our Cleanslate crews and staff safe. From ensuring proper sanitation and installing plexiglass in our trucks to reducing crew sizes and putting a hazard pay system in place, we were preparing to re-open safely. We also created an alternate framework to train new crew members in two hours virtually instead of our traditional multi-day in-person training.

After 17 days, Cleanslate was defined as an essential business by the city, and we were back to work. Fortunately, some of our biggest customers committed to pay their full monthly invoice even while we were briefly closed during that short time. Our partners saw Cleanslate as essential to our community.

We were back in action with great hustle and even exceeded our expectations: signing new contracts; expanding our reach to Gary, Indiana; and creating employment opportunities comparable to our pre-pandemic numbers, trending towards 400 jobs for the year.


Two of our Cleanslaters providing essential landscaping services this past spring


“What am I most proud of this year? Obviously the team at Cleanslate,” says Brady Gott, Cleanslate Managing Director. “Since March, our team has made the tough decision to come in every day, follow all of the safety guidelines they helped put in place, and coach and develop our crew members, while also running profitable contracts.”

Cleanslate set high standards that helped our entire enterprise set safety policies and procedures for our other campuses. Without Cleanslate’s quick thinking and immediate action, hundreds of people would be unemployed and the communities we serve wouldn’t get essential landscaping and exterior maintenance care. 

To learn more about how Cleanslate is transforming the physical and social landscapes of Chicago and beyond, visit our website. You can also read more stories about how our participants and the Cara enterprise live out our Transformations every single day.

Changing Behavior to Build an Inclusive Employment Movement

Cara Staff

We are working with employers to change their hiring practices and recruit community-based talent.



Hiring practices tremendously shifted this past year. Many of our closest employment partners are in the industries hardest impacted by COVID-19 such as hospitality and food service. We’ve seen these companies pause their hiring, which makes connecting people with gainful employment all the more challenging.

However, we’ve also seen new and promising opportunities to work with employers ready to grow their team and change their hiring practices to be more inclusive. We are using this momentum to start an inclusive employment movement, helping companies see and hire the amazing talent that exists in Chicago communities often overlooked.

Cara Plus, the expansion arm of Cara’s enterprise, has helped amplify our enterprise-wide voice to advocate for inclusive employment. We are collectively working to share actionable steps employers can take to hire community-based talent such as tweaking job descriptions that welcome a larger talent pool and accepting applicants who have previously been involved with the justice system.

“We all have bumps and bruises,” says Elaine Ross, Manager of Placement Services. “But that doesn’t mean a person wouldn’t make a positive impact on your company. Every single person on this earth has beautiful talents; they just need an opportunity to share them with the world.”

We are fortunate to work with companies who are eager to join the movement. Our friends at BMO Harris are dedicated to making the financial industry more accessible to jobs seekers with barriers to employment. Earlier this year, they partnered with us to co-create their new workforce initiative BMORE. Every step of the process was a collaboration from how we recruited talent to training and preparing potential hires. And through this program, BMO Harris has already hired 11 Cara participants to be their newest Customer Experience Representatives.


Joe Mutuc and Bianca, a member of our inaugural BMORE cohort, on the Good Day Chicago morning show


One of our incredible participants in this inaugural cohort is Bianca, a lifelong resident of the Austin community and single mother of two young children. “This job means I can be independent,” says Bianca. “I can provide and set the example of hard work for my children.”

As we enter 2021, we are eager to help more companies change their hiring behavior to find the essential talent from all Chicago communities.

Read more stories about how our participants and the Cara enterprise live out our Transformations every single day.

Your donation this Giving Tuesday will support our participants on their pathway out of poverty. Please join our community and become a Cara Champion, supporting Chicago’s motivated job seekers who are ready to get back to work and transform their futures. Visit our Giving Tuesday website to make a gift. Thank you for being our Champion!

Pashk Accepts Change to Find Opportunity

Cara Staff

Pashk had to change how he looked at himself and his career when he immigrated to America.


“I had a hard time finding a job after immigrating to the United States from Albania. Since I hadn’t worked or gone to school here in America, companies didn’t want to hire me because ‘I didn’t have experience,’ even though I had worked in sales and management for many years back home.

“My wife works in the Chicago nonprofit sector and heard about how Cleanslate, Cara’s flagship social enterprise, provided employment and a pathway to a long-term career. She encouraged me to look into their job opportunities, so I called Cleanslate’s office to set up a time to visit and learn more about their program.

“I came to Cleanslate with my resume in hand and was surprised to learn about how their crews take care of Chicago neighborhoods. It was humbling; I never pictured myself cleaning streets after the career I had in Albania.

“But I knew I had to change my behavior, especially the way I viewed myself and the kind of job I wanted. I had to change in order to be a part of American culture, and I was grateful to have Cleanslate and Cara to help me transition. I knew I would be able to make a difference and serve the Chicago community in this new role. I decided that every day, even if I had to wake up as early as 4:00 AM, I would give it my all. 

“The work was challenging because it was a hot summer and I was still practicing my English. I would clean one block, but then I would get mixed up by the street signs and end up cleaning an extra block or two by mistake. Things got easier as I saw myself getting better; and after a couple of weeks, Cara’s Corporate Account Managers started calling me with potential long-term job opportunities.

“One opportunity that I was particularly excited about was with the Chicago Furniture Bank. Cara helped me prepare for the interview process and gave me ideas about how I could highlight my new Cleanslate experience.

“I got the job and began picking up furniture donations and bringing them to people’s homes who needed them. I joined a team of essential workers because people can’t be quarantined at home and not have a bed to sleep in.


Pashk en route to pick up Chicago Furniture Bank donations


“I think my job has given me a master’s degree in Chicago culture, which is something I really wanted and needed after coming from another country. My friend Michael and I were paired up to do deliveries together, and he taught me about the different neighborhoods that make up our city. I’ve really enjoyed meeting and getting to know people in their homes all across Chicago.

“Thank you Cleanslate and Cara for helping me get this opportunity. Over the past year, I’ve been able to achieve many goals, one of which was being promoted to Operations Manager. If I hadn’t changed and embraced a sense of humility, I would have missed the chance to make a positive impact on my community both at Cleanslate and now at the Chicago Furniture Bank.

Read more stories about how our participants and the Cara enterprise live out our Transformations every single day. Your support helps Chicago’s motivated job seekers transform their futures. Visit carachicago.org/donate to make a gift. Thank you!

Think Outside the Box to Find Job Seekers in a Virtual World

Cara Staff

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, our Recruitment Team had to find new ways to reach people in need of employment and build community partnerships.



So much of our Recruitment Team’s daily work is centered around building relationships with prospective participants and referral partners – churches, community centers, organizations, parole offices, shelters, and recovery homes. These relationships take time and trust to build in person, let alone over a phone call or computer screen.

But when the COVID pandemic hit, that was the challenge that this team faced as they had to find new ways to reach people in need of employment in such an uncertain economic time.

“One thing my team is most proud of is the way we conduct our recruitment interviews,” says Tekorah Martin, Manager of Recruitment & Admissions. “We’ve learned to read people over the phone, getting a sense of who they are to determine if our program is right for them.”

One of the biggest challenges has been describing Cara to job seekers without being able to invite them into our physical campuses. However, after explaining our new virtual programming to them, we realized the new format was a selling point for prospective participants; they could incorporate our trainings into their regular routine and responsibilities.

When we got a yes to joining our program, we found innovative ways to get them onboarded – which involved completing paperwork, sending bus cards, and arranging drug tests at medical facilities that are conveniently and safely located near participants’ homes.

Building relationships with new referral partners also took some creativity. Pre-COVID, we often turned to shelters, but during the Stay at Home Order, most shelters weren’t allowing guests on-site or residents leaving the premises to prevent the spread of the virus. Looking for alternative ways to find job seekers, we noticed a lot of community services switched over to food distribution. So the team safely set up at food pop-ups, putting flyers in the bags of food being distributed to the community.


Tekorah Martin and Intisar Omar reaching out to job seekers at a summer food pop-up


The biggest lesson we’ve learned is that we have to meet people where they are, be it virtually, or safely in person. We can’t wait for job seekers to find us during a time like this. Our Recruitment Team has engaged nearly 700 job seekers since March. Not only did our creative outreach methods prove to be an effective way to recruit job seekers, but it also strengthened our friendships with organizations like Austin Coming Together and Latinos Progresando. Together, we can lift up our communities and connect even more people to gainful employment.

Read more stories about how our participants and the Cara enterprise live out our Transformations every single day.

Your donation this Giving Tuesday will help us reach more Chicago job seekers and connect them with gainful employment. Please join our community and become a Cara Champion, supporting Chicago’s motivated job seekers who are ready to get back to work and transform their futures. Visit our Giving Tuesday website to make a gift. Thank you for being our Champion!

Selvan Thinks Outside the Box to Make His Next Career Move

Cara Staff

Selvan came to Cara with a wealth of experience, but after an unexpected lay-off, he learned to think outside the box to make his next career move.

“I came to the United States to finish my PhD and learn new skills that I could apply to my work back home in India. I was very much involved in grassroots work for underprivileged individuals in rural communities. But my life changed, so I began looking for opportunities here in the United States.

“Earlier in my career, I worked many kinds of jobs – as a professor in college, teacher in high school, chaplain in a hospital, counselor, and company manager. But when I was let go from my most recent position, I had real difficulty finding a new opportunity; I knew that I needed help with my job search.

“A friend of mine recommended Cara, and specifically Cara Connects, Cara’s mission-driven staffing firm. I pictured the organization as a traditional staffing firm and hoped they would have jobs lined up and ready to go. I started submitting application after application and nothing happened at first. I began to wonder if partnering with Cara would make a difference.

“I had to learn how to think outside the box and look at myself and my career from a new perspective. I came in with ideas for my future based on my past lived experience. What I needed was to think creatively and be open to new possibilities.

Selvan (first row second from the right) and members of the Cara community at LinkedIn’s headquarters

“I realized I don’t have to start a job at the management level. I can grow within a company. With this new mindset, I worked with Cara Connects to find employment with C&W Services as their newest Service Center Associate. I am eager to learn and make a difference in my new role.

“Cara and Cara Connects became my support system that empathized with my struggles, advocated my skills to employers, and guided me toward potential job opportunities I never considered. It was like having myself – more Selvans – out in the world in the form of each Cara staff member who walked with me along my journey to employment.

Read more stories about how our participants and the Cara enterprise live out our Transformations every single day.

Your donation this Giving Tuesday helps Cara participants like Selvan think outside the box to pursue a new career. Please join our community and become a Cara Champion, supporting Chicago’s motivated job seekers who are ready to get back to work and transform their futures. Visit our Giving Tuesday website to make a gift. Thank you for being our Champion!

This is Only the Beginning for William

Cara Staff

William isn’t going to relax because his career is just the beginning. His experience with Cara and Cleanslate has taught him anything is possible.



“When the COVID-19 pandemic began, I was working as a porter in a parking garage. When the Stay at Home Order started, and people stopped parking in my garage, I was laid off. I spent the next five months collecting unemployment. It was challenging for me to be at a standstill, unsure of what was going to happen the next day.

“I first learned about Cleanslate while I was waiting for a bus in South Shore. Someone stopped to ask the nearby Cleanslate crew member cleaning the the street about the company he worked for. I was really interested in all of the opportunities he described, so I joined the conversation and asked for Cleanslate’s number. I called and got set up to start orientation shortly after.

“My first day came and I was really excited to get back to work. Initially, I was worried about whether I would be able to keep up with the crew, as they all seemed so determined to get the job done in a timely manner.


A photo of William from our virtual interview


“But I surprised myself with how well I managed my time and paid attention to detail. I’m an energetic and fast learner, so I picked up how to be a team player, work efficiently, and never give up. Our Crew Chiefs motivated and encouraged me, which took some of the pressure off that I had put on myself. My confidence has really grown since day one.

“Joining Cleanslate brought light back into my life. I felt stuck, waiting to get called back to my old job. Now, I’m reaching for new opportunities with the help of Cara’s Corporate Account Managers who are helping me launch my career in the medical field.

“The last couple of months have taught me that I have to keep moving forward. Cara and Cleanslate helped me see that anything is possible as long as you don’t quit. My dream is to work in a hospital helping people, and I’m grateful to have a community supporting me while I work to achieve this goal.”

Read more stories about how our participants and the Cara enterprise live out our Transformations every single day.

Looking to Virtual Digital Literacy Education

Cara Staff

Cara Connects had to look with new eyes in order to change their traditional in-person digital literacy classes in a virtual world.



Over the past several decades, digital skills have become more and more in demand from employers. As we equip our job seekers with the knowledge and experience needed to get and crush the job, we sought out new ways to provide digital literacy to new communities.

Thanks to a grant from UnidosUS and Verizon Wireless, Cara Connects, our mission-driven staffing firm, partnered with our friends at Northwest Side Housing Center to start a Latinos @ Work program called Adelante, the Spanish word for “Forward.” 

Since Adelante’s launch in October 2019, we have taught three cohorts of job seekers in the Belmont Cragin community how to competitively enter the workforce with digital skills that lead to gainful employment. Three days a week for eight weeks, students came to Northwest Side Housing Center for classes on everything from creating an email account to learning Microsoft Office and Google suites.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic started earlier this year, we had to look at our program with new eyes. Our classes couldn’t be led by traditional in-person instruction. How could we continue our training when — to even log into class every day — Adelante students needed to use the very same digital skills we were going to teach them? Many students faced additional hurdles brought on by the Stay at Home Order, such as not having internet access at home in order to take the course.

Despite challenges, our Adelante students stayed determined to enhance their digital skills and seek new opportunities. Inspired by their resilience, we adapted how we taught our curriculum to a virtual format and ensured everyone received or had access to a laptop. We also figured out how to help our students get internet access or find places with free Wi-Fi.


Our first virtual Adelante graduation


Since the shift to a virtual curriculum, 22 students have graduated from the Adelante program and 12 are already gainfully employed.

Students are not only able to learn in this new virtual way but also build friendships and community through their screens. “I see our students completely transform,” says our Staffing Site Manager Mariel Corona, who leads our Adelante program. “Adelante is designed to build people up from day one. At the end of our eight-week class our students not only have the digital skills but the confidence and self-esteem to succeed.”

Read more stories about how our participants and the Cara enterprise live out our Transformations every single day.

Your donation this Giving Tuesday helps Adelante students learn the digital skills they need to take the next step in their careers. Please join our community and become a Cara Champion, supporting Chicago’s motivated job seekers who are ready to get back to work and transform their futures. Visit our Giving Tuesday website to make a gift. Thank you for being our Champion!