Lyneese Straws works with a volunteer at the Beth-Hark Christian Counseling Center in New York City.

eCornell, nonprofit partners tackle economic mobility

Minister Lyneese Straws responds to a daily rush of requests from congregants, volunteers and community members as the manager of a bustling food pantry and soup kitchen in Harlem. Each person gets her full attention.

Straws manages more than 15 volunteers per week and ensures smooth operations for consumers at Bethel Gospel Assembly’s Beth-Hark Christian Counseling Center.

She landed the job after completing Cornell’s Project Leadership certificate through eCornell’s new Transform program, which offers working adults from underserved communities free access to Cornell online courses and certificates, with the goal of supporting economic mobility for all. Straws was referred to the program by United Way of New York City, one of Transform’s first partners.

“I learned so much from the leadership certificate with Cornell. It taught me about myself and how to deal with others in team settings,” Straws said. “It’s about getting to know the volunteers and the consumers, calling them by their names, knowing their faces, developing relationships and serving everyone in excellence.”

Cornell impacting New York State

Unlike other programs, eCornell Transform taps into existing relationships, through its nonprofit partners, to determine a community’s workforce needs and identify adults who could meet those needs with additional training and support, said Joanne Troutman, director of social impact programs for eCornell.

“By extending educational opportunities from Cornell to those who otherwise would not have access, we aim to help individuals gain new skills and forge career paths that earn a living wage,” Troutman said.

eCornell recently completed its pilot of the Transform program, which ran in partnership with a handful of nonprofit organizations across the country, focusing on New York state. With successful results, eCornell now plans to secure additional partner funding and expand the program to participants in more locations.

Straws participated in the pilot after a nine-year beauty marketing role with Bobbi Brown Cosmetics ended on the verge of the COVID-19 pandemic. She relied on severance, investments and unemployment payments, and struggled to maintain housing for her family. And she began volunteering at Bethel Gospel Assembly’s food pantry and soup kitchen at Beth-Hark.

She had been volunteering for six months when Beth-Hark’s administrators saw her leadership skills and asked if she wanted to participate in eCornell’s pilot program. “Earlier in the year, I had seen an ad for eCornell and I looked at courses, but I didn’t have the funding,” Straws said. “When opportunities like that fall in your lap, you know it’s purpose. It’s by design.”

She took the Project Leadership program’s six courses and live study group. They prepare students to influence teams, leverage emotional intelligence, drive project outcomes and foster healthy conflict. Straws’ favorite course, “Leading Project Teams,” offered her a forum of peers to discuss her work experience and ways to apply her new skills.

Earning the project leadership certificate has been vital in helping Straws serve her community beyond the pantry and soup kitchen. She employs her new skills at Bethel Gospel Assembly, where she co-directs ministries for adults and teens, during team ministry engagements at Horizon Juvenile Center in the Bronx, and in her own marketing consulting business, Just Jump Brandstorming.

Her next step is to complete studies for a real estate license as she develops plans to create a one-stop-shop transitional housing complex that will also offer makeovers, counseling, pantry services and more.

And she hopes to complete additional certificates through eCornell.

“Being a part of the Transform program opened doors for me,” Straws said. “It was invaluable because I was able to apply it to so many areas of my life – in ministry, in helping the community, within myself. In every moment, God allows me to be a part of the bigger picture, which is to help rebuild someone’s life.”

Torie Anderson is a writer for eCornell.

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