Debbie Atterberry, who developed a small jobs program in the western suburbs into a major social services employment center that helps 15,000 people a year, is stepping down from the agency that oversees it.

Atterberry, 64, is leaving as president of Resource, headquartered in south Minneapolis, at the end of October, after 35 years with the agency.

In 1977, she was hired by Resource to head a tiny program called MRC-CETA to provide employment services in the west metro area.

Over 27 years, she broadened its scope, and today, the Employment Action Center helps people across the Twin Cities, including laid off workers, veterans, at-risk youth, teen parents, low-income adults, welfare recipients, new Americans and others.

Atterberry said that rather than retiring, she plans to do contract work focused on her field, as well as to do some volunteer work helping children to read in a first-grade class in Fridley, where her daughter is a teacher. 

“I have loved my work,” said Atterberry. “I am very lucky.”

Atterberry said her “passion” to help workers grew out of her own life and work experience.

“I grew up in a very low-income family and because of that I worked my way through school,” she said.

She was a factory assembly worker and punch press operator, a waitress in a hospital, a hospital ward clerk, a secretary and clerical worker and a nanny. She says she came to appreciate the struggles of people to find employment and advance themselves. “I had knowledge of the work world, and I wanted to make sure people had opportunities,” she said.

Her own contributions were recognized by the Jobs Now Coalition, which gave her a community service award in 2001, and the Twin West Chamber of Commerce, which presented her with the Women of Achievement Award in 2002.

Today, Resource has 320 employees and offices throughout the metro area and St. Cloud and is the 18th largest non-profit social service organization in Minnesota, according to rankings by the Star Tribune in 2011. It has a budget of slightly more than $25 million, mostly in government funding.

Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman said last week that the county has had many contracts with Resource under Atterberry’s leadership, and Dorfman said Resource has always delivered on its promises, developing programs that help people tackle barriers that prevent their employment.

“She has touched hundreds of thousands of individuals and families in positive ways,” said Dorfman, “helping them to break down those barriers and find housing, get a job and get help for their treatment for mental illness.”

Resource is something of a megamall of social service programs that include a young dads program for fathers who are unemployed and want to build their work history and skills; services to help women who are employed at low wages and supporting families to learn how to advance in the job market and obtain higher wages; job services for returning veterans; and training programs in nine areas such as building maintenance, health technology and basic manufacturing skills.

There are services for laid-off workers to help them with re-employment, and assistance to welfare recipients to develop skills and become connected to the job market so they can move off welfare.

During 2011, Resource’s mental health division, Spectrum Community Health, provided housing services to 848 people with mental illness, many of whom were formerly homeless. Another division, Recovery Resource Center, provided housing and other support services to 563 people and 24 families in recovery from chemical dependency.

Atterberry acknowledged that the current economic downturn has been very difficult for people seeking employment.

“It’s quite a challenge for people to get work, but we have had really good success rates,” she said.

“When people come to us, they seem very, very hopeless. Then they start to see their strengths and learn more about presenting themselves in the job market.”

Resource’s board is in the process of a searching for a new president, she said, who should be in place by the end of October, when Atterberry plans to leave.

An event to mark Atterberry’s departure is scheduled for 3 to 6 p.m. Oct. 9 with a brief program at 5 p.m. at the Ukrainian Event Center, 301 Main St. NE. in Minneapolis. People who plan to attend are asked to either e-mail Nanci Bohmer at nbohmer@resource-mn.org or call 612-752-8004.