Although Opportunity Junction's annual gala bears the dreamy title "The 2014 Imagine Gala," there'll be as much grit as grandeur served up when the party swings into action April 26 at the Diablo Country Club.
Sure, guests can consume hors d'oeuvres and fine wine while bidding on exotic Tahoe and Mexico getaways, Calistoga grape harvest crushes or baseball and barbecue outings. And later, they'll easily escape their troubles as they dine and dance to the music of the Motown-loving Strawberry Fields DJ. But there'll be no imagination needed when it comes to recognizing the fundamental, hardworking determination behind the story that will be told by Andrew Leaaetoa, a 2012 graduate of Opportunity Junction's Job Training and Placement Program in Antioch.
Opportunity Junction provides technology, literacy and personal development training for low-income Contra Costa residents. Tax preparation, resume review, interview coaching, computer training and additional resource information are just a few of the services offered. Putting people on the path to economic self-sufficiency is the Antioch-based nonprofit's purpose.
"People come to us most often for job training," said Executive Director Alissa Friedman.
"They usually think they need technology skills, but they stay for the life skills, for what they learn about themselves."
With a staff of 18 and a team of paid, professional educators conducting the flagship job placement courses initiated in 2000, a strict vetting process culls typical applicant pools of 80 to 100 people down to 20.
Arriving with an array of abilities and needs, Friedman said fierce motivation is something that can't be taught, so it's a pre-existing quality they seek in students. Aimed at preparing administrative employees to enter the workforce, three months of training, four months as a paid intern and 18 months of "alumni follow-up" counseling make for a hefty program.
Adriana Ponce-Matteucci came to Opportunity Junction after her husband, Matt Matteucci, lost his job in the plumbing industry in 2011. The Pittsburg resident had a gap in her job history and lacked technical skills to be competitive.
But she had the all-essential, I-can-do-it attitude, and today, she is the Antioch Office Manager for Rubicon Programs, a Richmond-based provider of housing, mental health, employment and other support services to low-income people.
Arriving for an interview, it's easy to recognize Ponce-Matteucci as an Opportunity Junction graduate: assured handshake, warm-toned greeting, direct gaze, business card. Dig deeper: fingers capable of cranking out 45-words-per-minute on a keyboard, complete knowledge of Microsoft systems and a fiery desire to work hard to achieve a better life.
"My job is to organize. I coordinate events and workshops, help (mostly) parents coming out of incarceration to reintegrate into the community, assist them in making job-related purchases -- " she said, not exhausting her list, but ending it. It's instantly clear: Ponce-Matteucci has learned to gauge her audience as well as manage her job's multiple responsibilities.
Bilingual, well-prepared and conscientious, she downplays her talents, saying she was surprised to be accepted into the program.
"I interviewed well, I asked questions," she said, hesitantly.
More confident in speaking about what she learned, Ponce-Matteucci said, "It's important to give back. We were required to do volunteer hours while we were in the program. It made me feel I made a difference."
Contributing -- especially after facing the stiff job market's inevitable rejections -- fed her confidence and reminded her she wasn't alone.
"Everyone needs help at some time," she said. "If we didn't stop to help others, we'd be unable to advance."
Last year's gala raised close to $130,000; representing nearly 10 percent of Opportunity Junction's $1.5 million annual budget.
"We're hoping to top that," Friedman said, expressing some of the same gritty optimism as the organization's students. She said the economic crisis sharpened their focus on what employers are seeking. The result is an increase in the courses they offer and partnerships like the one with Rubicon that resulted in Ponce-Matteucci's placement.
With selection as a Microsoft Certification support test center and new initiatives they are seeking with community college avocational programs, she sees no limit to Opportunity Junction's value in a recovering economy.