Volunteers at a Better Together job fair in Florida celebrate with an attendee ringing the Opportunity Bell because he got a job with an employer at the event. PHOTOS COURTESY BETTER TOGETHER

Imagine walking into a job interview in an inviting atmosphere where a number of employers have gathered – as eager to find good workers as you are to find good work – and being approached warmly with a smile and handshake from someone who says “Hello! How are you? How can I help you today?”

This welcome is what job seekers can expect at a job fair planned for Aug. 18 in the Parish Hall at St. Luke’s Church on Hilton Head Island.

Beyond the greeting, if you have preregistered for this job fair, you might also be outfitted with suitable interview clothing, a haircut, a fresh new resume, and a job coach.

This isn’t a typical job fair. In fact, it is unique in a number of ways, said Mellissa Foster, of Better Together, a nonprofit based in Naples, Fla. The organization works with churches across the country to bring a new approach to solving the unemployment and underemployment problem.

Even individuals who might have a less than stellar record can expect to speak with employers who respect rehabilitation and recovery, and are willing to give someone a second chance.

Members of St. Luke’s who are involved in ministry programs at Ridgeland and Allendale state prisons connected with Better Together after fellow volunteer Cathleen DeCourcy of Ridgeland found the organization while researching programs for National Second Chance Month two years ago.

“At that time, I had several discussions with them regarding hosting a job fair in South Carolina,” DeCourcy said. DeCourcy is the executive director of Partners in Transition Inc., based in Ridgeland.

Alas, the organization required that a church sponsor the event. “So, I spoke with a few churches that I was familiar with that had a presence in prison ministry,” she said, but didn’t find just the right fit “until this year, when St. Luke’s and Rob Cushman took on the challenge.”

Better Together was established 2015 with the mission of helping at-risk Florida families stay together by giving them preventative resources and keeping the children out of foster care.

“We help parents who are homeless, that are coming out of drug addiction, that have no family, no support, that want to keep their kids with them. They want to be better, they want to make better choices, but have no one to help them do that,” Foster said.

After a few years of working with families, the organization began a program to address a primary problem that sent people to them in the first place: job loss.

“So we created our Better Jobs ministry,” Foster said, which is national, and which can be implemented anywhere a church is willing to host a job fair.

Organizers are trained by Better Jobs and given tips, tools and strategies that work, but how each job fair is structured is up to the church and its volunteers.

“A job fair in Hilton Head is going to look a lot different than a job fair in Chicago Heights,” Foster said. “It depends on what the community needs most.”

One thing that makes these job fairs unique, Foster said, is that they are celebratory. Job seekers don’t just come in, fill out an application and leave.

“At our job fairs, people are walking in, and they are getting an immediate ‘Hello, how are you? How can I help you today?’ because the church has done a good job of getting volunteers to love on these people when they walk in,” Foster said. The personal attention helps attendees feel “seen and loved.”

Another unique aspect, Foster said, is that participating companies are told to send someone who can hire on the spot. “This is where one in four people who come to our job fairs walk out with a job or opportunity,” she said.

Some specific fairs are Second Chance Job Fairs, where the only employers participating are those willing to give jobs to individuals who have a felony or misdemeanor background. Job seekers with a record can be confident going in, because everyone knows about it, and that’s OK.

The other unique part of these fairs is that they are always within a church and working with church volunteers to conduct the fair.

“Only 2% of churches in the United States have a workforce ministry,” Foster said. “What we are trying to do is – 80% of churches have a benevolence (ministry), so we are wanting churches to flip that script. We’d love to see 80% of churches in the United States have job fairs and work ministries, help people getting out of prison get back to work so we can get ahead of that problem, and not just give them a check.”

“One of the things we are trying to do is get job seekers to pre-register,” said Cushman of St. Luke’s, a member of the leadership team for the job fair. “If they do pre-register, there are a number of things we can offer them. If they don’t, those things will be offered, but in an abbreviated way.”

Among the extras are suitable interview clothing, provided by the Church Mouse Thrift Store (a ministry of St. Luke’s), ahead of visiting with employers, the availability of a haircut, preparation of a resume, and a “grab bag” prize. “To be prepped and ready for this job opportunity is part of the celebration,” Cushman said.

Every person who attends the fair will get a gift certificate from the Church Mouse to be used for clothing, shoes and accessories for job interviews.

Ambassadors will not only greet attendees but will ask if they have a resume or need one, if they have a business card or need some, “and we’ll have a printer and a computer set up with a volunteer there to walk them through the process,” Cushman said.

One of the highlights of these job fairs, Foster and Cushman said, is the Opportunity Bell. When a person gets a job during the event, that individual gets to ring the bell. “It brings tears every single time I see somebody ring it,” Foster said. “People’s eyes light up the second they get to ring that bell. They’re so excited and they’re proud – they just got a job! They finally found a way to provide for their family!”

When the bell rings, everyone in the place stops to applaud.

Cushman said he was a little skeptical at first about the need for a job fair, when “every door on every business” in the community has a sign about needing workers. During the training however, “We were blown away” by the program and template that Better Together provides partner churches.

“Everyone on the leadership team is going out and asking businesses to participate,” Cushman said. Some of the companies have signed up as “second chance” employers – those who are aware that someone might have a record, and are willing to give a second chance. This fair is not just a “second chance” opportunity, but is a good resource for the underemployed, Cushman said.

Employers who had signed up at press time include CRAB hospitality group, Carolyn’s Landscaping, Hilton Head Social Bakery, Monarch Roofing, Palmetto Dunes Resort, South Carolina Highway Patrol, South Carolina Yacht Club, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

As Cushman described networking with other churches, Foster chimed in to point another way this job fair is unique: “Your church, Rob, is starting something unique, in a place that has not had one – we don’t have any churches in South Carolina (hosting a job fair) except this one. … People are going to take note and they’re going to want to be part of it.”

Some have already taken note, Cushman said. Two prison ministry delegations, one from Greenville/Spartanburg and one from Charleston, are planning to come and observe.

The Community Job Fair will be held from noon to 4 p.m. Aug. 18 in the Parish Hall of St. Luke’s Church, 50 Pope Ave. on Hilton Head Island. To pre-register, visit bettertogetherus.org/events/hhi-jf.