By Stephen Samaniego
Ida Petkus may be in the middle of her sixth month on unemployment, but she says she hasn't looked for a job since the summer. She's already got work – a job she created working for herself. "I thought I'd still be working for someone else and working in a company," says Petkus. "I never thought I would be an employer myself."
After being laid off as a domestic violence advocate this past March, Ida started her own domestic violence agency with a little help from Uncle Sam. It’s called the Self Employment Assistance Program, S.E.A. for short, and it trains people receiving unemployment benefits to start and run their own business.
When Ida heard about the program, it seemed like a no-brainer. She had tried looking for a job but had no luck. Petkus says, "There’s just nothing out there to be an advocate in this economy. So I signed up for it, thinking, "Well, I can brush up on my marketing skills, why not?'"
"Small businesses tend to fail," says Michael Glass who is director of New Jersey’s S.E.A. "Often because they don't have a written business plan, a marketing plan, and they're not financially ready to do it, so what we try to do is ease that process," adds Glass. He has been with the program since it started in the state 13 years ago and has seen close to 8,000 businesses created through S.E.A.
Here's how it works: applicants are screened and those who are likely to exhaust their benefits before finding a job are selected. Once in the program they are required to draw up a business plan, create a marketing campaign, and attend 60 hours of classes where seasoned entrepreneurs teach them everything from accounting to workplace regulations.
New Jersey is one of 8 states that offer the program and while interest there has remained steady since the recession began, other states are seeing a dramatic increase. In Oregon, officials say enrollment has jumped 75%.
Ida enrolled in the program in August and within weeks she had her agency, Tree House Haven, up and running. She rented office space in Mount Holly, New Jersey, secured funding through private donors like Verzion and the Philadelphia Flyers, recruited a staff and began counseling domestic abuse victims in person and via her website. "The first month, I probably had 25 hits – 25 people asking for information, now we're up to 80 people," says Petkus.
Ida picked her location, directly across the street from Mt. Holly Superior Court House, so that victims of domestic abuse are able to access her services quickly and conveniently. "Sara" is a victim of domestic violence and while she has a restraining order against her abuser, she was still subject to abuse from him when he would pick up the child they share.
"Sara" needed more help than what was being provided and sought out Ida's services. "She's been a lifesaving resource, absolutely life saving," says "Sara." "I was in a very bad way when Ida came to me and I can sit here and talk about it now with some focus, with some empowerment, with some comfort and with some confidence that I have a plan,” adds “Sara,” I have some resources and I'm gonna make it."