Landing a job can be a struggle for our clients living with HIV, when they’ve been out of the workforce for a while. GMHC’s Workforce Development program offers them employment counseling, training at the agency’s SUNY ATTAIN computer lab, connections to internships and jobs – and hope.
“When people come to us, they are just starting on their journey to go back into the workforce,” said Joseph Garofalo, the Workforce Development program’s coordinator. “We provide them a safe space, without judgment, to help them along.”
One Workforce alum, Nick Raitelu, enrolled after a rough patch in his life. “I’d always known about GMHC. It’s hard not to, if you live in New York City and you’re HIV positive,” the native New Yorker said.
At just 16, Raitelu had been diagnosed with HIV, and during his teenage years, he struggled with drugs and a felony conviction. He got his life together and moved to Chicago after college for a graduate degree in social work from the University of Chicago, then embarked on a counseling career as a case manager and youth advocate.
But when Raitelu returned to New York a decade ago, he said, everything fell apart. He spiraled back into addiction, got fired from his job as a youth HIV-prevention counselor, and ended up homeless. With transitional Single-Room Occupancy (SRO) housing and other benefits through the NYC HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA), he was able to get stabilized, move into an apartment, and start looking for work.
However, the gap on his resume from losing his job was a problem, Raitelu said. “I was interviewing, but not getting anywhere, despite the fancy degree and all my experience.”
Raitelu had already enrolled as a GMHC client for the pantry and meals programs. After the job rejections, he entered the Workforce program, where he was paired with Berkis DeLeon, a longtime job developer and retention specialist.
“She is amazing. I feel like she’s an angel. She saved my life in a way,” Raitelu said. “You can have all the experience and education – but it takes someone like Berkis to see you and give you an opportunity.”
GMHC hired him as a vocational case manager, where he worked with Black and Latinx youth in a higher risk category for HIV. Raitelu helped them discern what they were good at and guided them toward educational and job opportunities.
“It was a really beautiful experience, having a job at GMHC while also being a client,” he said. “Living with HIV is not easy, so being in an environment where other people were surviving, thriving and flourishing gave me hope.”
“I’ve been HIV positive from when I was really young, and I’d never been in an environment where I could really be who I am,” he added. “At GMHC, I was around folks who are really okay with HIV. It helped me be more comfortable with being my whole self – and I bring that to wherever I am.”
The COVID-19 shutdowns ended Raitelu’s job at GMHC, but he’d successfully relaunched his career. In 2021, he became a social worker at Samaritan Daytop Village in Brooklyn, a shelter for homeless men, often with mental health or substance use issues. “It’s been a joy,” he said. “I have my own experience with mental health, addiction, and homelessness, so I feel like I can help.”
How It Works
Like Raitelu, Workforce clients often need to address holes in their resumes to gain employment, Garofalo said. Now the Workforce program coordinator, he also started out as a client before joining GMHC’s staff in 2014. “My meds were working, and I wasn’t going to die, so I was trying to find my way back into the workforce,” he said.
GMHC’s Workforce case managers, computer specialists, and job developers meet clients where they are, with administrative support from Sammy Melendez and Rodney Sealey.
Vocational case manager Valentina Vidal performs an initial assessment of clients’ job skills and their goals, then assists with their resumes, identifying ways to fill any gaps in skills and experience. That could mean gaining computer skills through GMHC’s on-site lab in partnership with the SUNY Advanced Technology Training and Information Networking (ATTAIN) program, earning a GED, or connecting with an internship for work experience.
One client is currently finishing up a course for her GED diploma, so she’ll be ready to start her job search with a newly updated resume. “She’s really excited,” Garofalo said. “When I see that excitement in someone’s face, it hits me in my heart. They feel better about themself, and I know where they’ve been.”
Computer literacy is essential for many jobs. Through the SUNY ATTAIN lab, which is open to all GMHC clients and the public, technology specialists Prakash Bhatia and Pryce Mandel offer training that includes industry-recognized certifications such as Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS). Clients also use the lab for job-related searches, applications and Zoom interviews.
Job developer and retention specialists Berkis DeLeon and Daniel Hiraldo assess clients’ experience and connect them with internship and job opportunities from their database of current employment postings and job fairs.
Internships often lead to employment, Garafolo said, adding that two clients have just been hired as peer navigators at NYC Health + Hospitals after three-month internships. “They are so happy. It’s been incredible watching their journey from when they came in,” he said.
Many Workforce clients obtain health care or human services jobs in positions as home health aides, health navigators, or HIV service coordinators, he said. Others find work in food services, janitorial, security, retail, or transportation positions.
“Everything All at Once”
One challenge for new GMHC clients can be “trying to do everything all at once,” Garofalo said. “When people come in, they’re trying to get their housing, food and medical benefits together – while also looking for work. I don’t want our clients to be set up for failure, so I encourage them to pace themselves. There are many steps before a client is ready to go back to work.”
“Sometimes I have to be frank,” he added. “I’ll tell someone they need to get housing first. Where are you going to put your work clothes?”
Workforce staff also counsel clients on how part-time or full-time employment income can affect their public benefits for rent, food, and health care, Garofalo said. “That’s their safety net. We help them make a budget.”
Garofalo still loves seeing a client’s joy when they receive their first paycheck, he said. “It means somebody is off to good things.”
For more information about GMHC’s Workforce Development program, email Rodney Sealey or call (212) 367-1030.