Inside the bustling Bethel Gospel Assembly and Beth-Hark Christian Counseling Center in Harlem, Minister Lyneese Straws responds to a daily rush of requests from congregants, volunteers and community members. Each person gets her full attention.
She understands that even brief interactions can change lives.
More than a decade ago, Straws transitioned from receiving services from New York-based not-for-profit Dress for Success to volunteering for the organization — just in time for its collaboration with QVC for the first National Makeover Day. As cosmetics entrepreneur Bobbi Brown applied her makeup, Straws shared that she possessed a cosmetology license and education in business: the right foundation for a beauty marketing career.
“It was unbelievable when Bobbi asked, ‘Are you working now?’ I said no,” Straws recalled. “She said, ‘Good. Now you work for me.’”
An interview in the same week secured Straws’ nine years of employment with Bobbi Brown Cosmetics. When the role 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. She returned to volunteering, this time through Bethel Gospel Assembly’s food pantry and soup kitchen at Beth-Hark.
“I’d been volunteering for six months. Beth-Hark’s former operations manager, Kendall Glaspie, under the guidance of Executive Director Michelle P. Robinson, saw leadership skills in me and asked if I wanted to participate in a pilot program with eCornell,” Straws said. “Earlier in the year, I saw an ad for eCornell and I looked at courses, but I didn’t have the funding. When opportunities like that fall in your lap, you know it’s purpose. It’s by design.”
United Way of New York City, a Beth-Hark partner, is one of several organizations participating in eCornell Transform. The new program gives working adults from underserved communities no-cost access to online courses and certificates from Cornell University, powered by eCornell, with the core goal of supporting economic mobility for all.
“The eCornell Transform program is unique because it taps into existing relationships, through our 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 upskill and forge career paths that earn a living wage.”
eCornell recently completed its pilot of the Transform program, which ran in partnership with a handful of nonprofit organizations across the country, with a particular focus in New York state. With successful results across the board, eCornell now plans to secure additional partner funding and expand the program to participants in more locations.
Through the Transform program, Straws completed the Cornell project leadership certificate. The program’s six courses and live study group 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.
After completing the project leadership program last fall, she was promoted from volunteer to pantry and soup kitchen manager. In addition to ensuring smooth day-to-day operations for consumers, Straws performs administrative duties related to the center’s grants and food deliveries.
“I learned so much from the leadership certificate with Cornell. It taught me about myself and how to deal with others in team settings,” she said. “I’ve been able to use what I learned in running the pantry, and I manage over 15 volunteers in a week. 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.”
Earning the project leadership certificate has been vital in helping Straws serve her larger community as well. She employs skills from the program 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.
She also hopes to complete additional certificates through eCornell.
“These are all pieces of a puzzle to make the vision come to fruition. 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.”