Helping The Homeless Rebuild Their Lives

by Elliott May '06

“I have the ideal job!” recent Dartmouth grad Rebecca Ehrlichman ’04 proudly boasts of her young career as a Development Associate. Ehrlichman is not just fundraising for any old institution, but rather works for a program that she truly believes in, which, she confides, is the essential component of finding the right career path.

Indeed her company, FareStart, a small, Seattle-based non-profit, has at its core something that many individuals would be passionate about. Since its 1992 establishment by a local Seattle chef, FareStart has helped over 1,500 homeless and disadvantaged men and women rebuild their lives through job training in the food-service industry. Here, students work and learn alongside a professional staff of chefs to produce a total of up to 2500 meals daily. In addition to this technical training, FareStart also provides education through classroom instruction, individual case management and job placement services.

As a Seattle native, Ehrlichman became exposed to homelessness at an early age. “Just walking down the street, I would undoubtedly run into someone with a hand outstretched.” Her concern for the homeless manifested itself as early as grade school.  While doing a project on the subject, Ehrlichman quickly found that there was no defining reason for why people become homeless. Unanswered, this question, and the passion to solve it, followed her to Dartmouth, where she more ably assessed the issue from different angles with a sociology major and public policy minor.  At the same time, her interest in philanthropy began to develop, culminating in her final collegiate paper where she examined the trends and motivating factors behind philanthropy and volunteerism.

Through her work at FareStart, Ehrlichman has come to believe that it is essential to couple technical training with life skills training if we want to find a way to end the cycle of homelessness.  “If we taught our students knife skills but didn’t also teach them employability skills, we would be doing them a disservice.”   The key, it seemed to her, was to provide a means to help out, while simultaneously instilling confidence, not simply to hand out. Only through a combination of these factors, she concluded, could the problem of homelessness become eradicated.

However, like many young alums, upon graduating Ehrlichman resolved to try her hand at “for-profit” consulting for a Seattle firm. While her position provided experience, Ehrlichman found herself dissatisfied with the disconnection between her work and her passions. “You don’t get to choose what projects come to you in consulting,” Ehrlichman confided, “ I knew I needed mission-based work.” At FareStart, Ehrlichman found a more than worthy mission.

“The difference between myself and one of our [FareStart’s] students is so incredibly slight…maybe just a run of bad luck, a lost job, or even an issue entirely out of their control.” In order to help these individuals put themselves back on their feet, FareStart aids each student with housing and transportation, as well as goal-setting, crisis management, life skills, and job placement.

As for Ehrlichman’s own professional involvement with FareStart, it is found neither in the kitchen nor the restaurant.Yet her role as part of a Donor Relations team in the FareStart Office of Development is crucial for the sustainability of the entire program. As part of this small group, Ehrlichman helps maintain strong relationships with FareStart’s generous donors. “Most of the time, I just get to tell stories about the students or the program’s [FareStart’s] history…I absolutely love it.”

Ehrlichman certainly espouses a passion for her work, which she recognizes as the key to her happiness. While admittedly taking a small pay cut from her “for-profit” consulting firm to her current “not-or-profit” position, it is a move for which she holds no regrets.

If anything, Ehrlichman appears to be getting far more return from her pride and passion for FareStart than any potential monetary gain in the other sector. “Our goal is to make people employable.” Ehrlichman boasts that 87% of their graduates have a jobs within 90 days of graduation.  after the program’s completion. Of that, 80% are still employed in those same positions one year later. As the FareStart brochure humbly states: “not too shabby.”

So, next time you’re in the Seattle area, whether you’re eating at a PF Chang’s or an Outback Steakhouse, chances are that someone helping to make your meal enjoyable is a FareStart graduate. Yet as Ehrlichman’s successful program demonstrates, you won’t even notice.