Instead of the mundane “leave your name and number” voice message, Kevin Saunders sings to callers.
“Keep your head to the sky,” he sings in a smooth baritone, pulling a line from the 1973 hit by Earth, Wind and Fire.
It’s more than a musical uplift for souls who may need it. As the driving force behind a small Minneapolis nonprofit called UpWorks, Saunders works with people fresh out of addiction treatment, prison or other residential care programs. He helps people become self-sufficient and starts by showing them they can dream.
“You tell a guy or gal who just came out of jail or recovery, ‘You need to get a job,’ ” Saunders said. “If they haven’t thought about who they really are, if they haven’t thought about their dreams and passions, how are they ever going to get the right job? Or figure out how to go back to school?”
Last year, 80 adults were referred to the program, which pairs participants with volunteers over a three-month period to identify their interests and skills and to plot out realistic action steps toward goals. About 50 completed the program.
Based in north Minneapolis, UpWorks is a Christian organization that Saunders said is more interested in teaching problem-solving skills than proselytizing. It accepts any person who shows a willingness to learn and work through the structured curriculum that Saunders, 62, developed based on his experience overcoming homelessness and addiction.
Saunders’ course builds upon the Seven F’s: family, finances, fitness, friends, fun, future and faith. It aims to pick up where other recovery programs leave off.
“I believe in the practical application of ministry, not some words you say from a book like the Bible or Qur’an,” he said. “Our goal is to change the trajectory of a person’s life. We don’t want to frame it or box it in that we’re a bunch of Jesus freaks.”
UpWorks is one of 1,880 religious-related organizations in Minnesota, or about 5% of the state’s nonprofits. As with about three-quarters of such faith-based groups, it is funded mostly through private donations.
In addition to Saunders’ work with adults, UpWorks sends volunteer mentors to K-12 schools and recently launched a program to help high school students develop “soft” job skills, such as dependability and teamwork, that can be essential to workforce advancement.
UpWorks grew out of a Christian-based social service organization known as the Franklin Community Development Center, which launched in 2011 to focus on job placement for immigrants. Its founder, Susan Hewitt, retired from the organization last summer. She helped raise $2.4 million, which has continued to fund operations. The name was changed to UpWorks in 2014 and its mission changed.
“We think of ourselves today as having two foundational programs: healing after crisis and prevention before crisis,” said Lisa Peterson, who took over as UpWorks’ executive director a year ago.
The organization has an annual budget of $650,000 and a full-time staff of seven plus a handful of contract workers.
Saunders’ work with adults represents the healing side of the equation, Peterson said. It also is the most fully developed program within UpWorks.
The first participants graduated in the fall of 2016, and stories of those who have returned to school or found sustainable employment are starting to accumulate in Facebook postings and promotional testimonials.
There’s the person who graduated from Dunwoody College of Technology who now earns $90,000 as a computer welder. Another who had aspired only to work at a fast-food restaurant is now working toward a master’s degree in social work. A woman who was a victim of sex trafficking now has a bachelor’s degree and works as a drug counselor.
About 85% of participants are white — “We look like Minnesota,” Saunders said — with education levels that have ranged from people with MBAs to those who never finished eighth grade.
“People associate addiction with one group of people,” he added. “But it’s a monster. It’s in every family, touches every household.”
Saunders was born in Baltimore and moved to Washington, D.C., when he was 11. He studied engineering and computer science at Howard University and landed a job in computer operations at the U.S. Department of Justice. But after what he called “a period of addiction” in his 20s and 30s, Saunders ended up in a homeless shelter in downtown Minneapolis.
He got sober in 1989, and during that first year worked at the Sears automotive center in Brooklyn Center by day and at a fried chicken restaurant at night.
A job he took as a van driver for Ameriprise Financial gave him a shot at something better. He ended up working for the Minneapolis-based financial services company for 22 years, retiring in 2011 as a program manager in the IT department.
“The things I say and do are things that I practiced and used to reconstruct my life,” Saunders said.
He earned a master’s in strategic leadership from Bethel University in St. Paul and is working on a second master’s at University of Northwestern in Roseville. In addition to his work overseeing the adult program at UpWorks, Saunders is an ordained Baptist minister.
Donna Minter, who met Saunders five years ago at a weeklong training session she conducts on racial trauma and restorative justice, said his role at UpWorks pulls together all of his skills and background.
“To do the kind of work he does, you have to understand psychological trauma and what people have been through,” she said.
Volunteers do much of the hands-on work at UpWorks, meeting with participants in weekly hourlong sessions to work through Saunders’ curriculum. There are about 100 volunteers, mostly recruited through churches.
Referrals into the UpWorks program come from about a half-dozen other Christian-based organizations, including the Salvation Army, Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, Healing House, Turning Point and Crossing Home.
“We take men who are completely broken, homeless, addicted,” said Tom Canfield, director of the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center in downtown Minneapolis. “We clean them up and get them focused on what brought them here. What UpWorks does is help them determine what the next step is going to be.”
Of the 200 to 350 men who come through the Salvation Army’s rehab program each year, fewer than a dozen are referred to UpWorks. But Canfield said the results are encouraging.
Though the coronavirus pandemic has upended the job market, Minnesota’s existing job gap still exists and is expected to grow in the years ahead as aging baby boomers retire and the pool of younger qualified workers shrinks because of declining birthrates and immigration.
Saunders believes his program can help employers find workers to fill the gap while also teaching people to help themselves.
“Amazing things can happen in 12 to 14 short weeks,” he said.