Giving back by helping the jobless
Nonprofit fills void by working with professionals
She knows what it’s like to make a fortune and then lose it. She knows what it’s like to lose a job, then be unemployed for months on end. And Christine Driscoll O’Neill knows what it’s like to become wealthy again, and she has set out to give back.
O’Neill is founder and chief financier of One Life at a Time, a Rockland-based nonprofit that provides free career services. Launched in 2007, it recently opened a second office in Braintree. It provides skills assessment, career planning, computer training, interview and résumé help, financial planning, job search planning, and job placement assistance.
“We do everything that particular person needs, get them to be all they can be,’’ said O’Neill. “We send them to counseling, get them clothing - everything they need we help with.’’
One Life at a Time may sound a bit like one of the state Career Centers. “What’s different is we do a lot of high-end individuals,’’ such as lawyers and accountants, she said. The state centers “don’t know what to do with individuals who have a great track record in financial or medical or pharmaceutical. They don’t have the resources.’’
The Career Centers have begun referring such clients to One Life at a Time, and the manager of Plymouth’s center is leaving to join One Life at a Time.
Many clients are changing careers. “I would say at least half are career changers, most not for desire but because they have to change with the times,’’ said Russell Abbatiello, who is associate director of career specialists at the nonprofit.
“We may be putting them in a different direction, but we find them work,’’ said O’Neill. “Marketing people may need Web design, some of them may need Quickbooks. We get them those skills they need to get them where they want to be.’’
Deanne Cavanaugh of Rockland left the workforce to be a mother, then tried to return. Although she had 18 years’ experience in corporate travel, the jobs weren’t coming. One Life at a Time was the answer. “They basically gave me tools, how to market myself, how to update my résumé. They showed me what to do,’’ said Cavanaugh, 43. Cavanaugh began a full-time job this month.
“They lifted me up,’’ Cavanaugh said. “Looking for a job in this market can bring you down. I came out of there pumped up.’’
One Life at a Time employs 12, including eight counselors, and has 700 active clients. It has served more than 5,000 clients without receiving a dime from the government, its clients, or the employers with whom it works. “I don’t get any money,’’ O’Neill said. “I don’t get a paycheck.’’
She has had her paydays. The first came in her 20s when, as a medical laboratory technician, she struck out on her own. She sold the lab she started for more than $1 million, then plowed it all into a new lab company. It failed, and she lost her money. She found herself “overqualified’’ and out of work for nearly a year and a half in the early 1990s.
Later, while working at the Rockland offices of Serono, a Swiss pharmaceutical maker, she turned whistle-blower in a case in which Serono was accused of falsifying information to market a growth hormone.
While that case was working its way through the courts, O’Neill again faced unemployment and then underemployment. She left Serono for a job that didn’t last, ending in August 2003, and she could no longer work as a lab technician. “I hadn’t finished my degree,’’ she said, “so the jobs I went for I couldn’t get because pharmaceutical had changed, and if you didn’t have a degree you couldn’t work in the industry anymore.’’
She took lower-end jobs, worked retail at Filene’s, and attended Curry College and Quincy College, earning a BA in business management and human resources.
Then Serono settled its court case, paying more than $700 million in fines and damages. Whistle-blowers got a piece. O’Neill, who has written a yet-to-be-published book, “In search of justice: A whistleblower’s fight for the truth,’’ won’t say how much she received, but $16.9 million has been reported. She noted that her 2005 settlement check had to cover her costs, taxes, and legal fees. Still, she was rich.
But the high life was not for her. “I knew that I had a responsibility with this money,’’ she said. She helped her family. She set up the Driscoll-O’Neill Charitable Foundation, whose beneficiaries include Tufts New England Medical Center, groups working on domestic violence issues, and shelters for children. And, sensing a shaky job market, she set up One Life at a Time.
O’Neill’s drive to help others is infectious. Abbatiello, 36, who lives in Reading, said he joined 2 1/2 years ago after he became “excited about the mission of what they do.’’ He likes One Life at a Time’s one-person-at-a-time approach.
“Individualized needs become individualized goals,’’ said Abbatiello. He listens carefully and tries to “decipher the evidence of the new career among things that they’re already good at and the things they are happy doing.’’
Jay Craft became unemployed when his job with a defense contractor ended. “I didn’t realize the way job hunting was today. I’m used to walking in and shaking someone’s hand and saying, ‘Do you need any help?’ ’’ said Craft, 39, a disabled veteran living in Kingston. “I’m disabled, but I’m capable for sure.’’
He went to the Career Center in Plymouth. They were swamped and pointed him to One Life at a Time, where he learned Internet skills. Those didn’t lead to a job, but then he rediscovered a skill from his days in the military. In July, he began a full-time job as a mechanic. “I love the challenge. It’s something new every day,’’ he said.
Kristin Bell discovered One Life at a Time at a career fair after graduating from University of Massachusetts Boston in 2009. “They were great at being your cheerleading squad in this tough, tough job market.’’ Bell, 31, of Marshfield, who worked her way through college over 10 years as a waitress, found support and motivation at One Life at a Time. Eventually, she realized she enjoyed working with the elderly, and now she is an activities and events assistant at Atria Senior Living in Quincy.
One Life at a Time does not just help the jobless. “We have a lot of individuals who are currently working; they’re just not happy doing what they’re doing,’’ O’Neill said. “You need to enjoy the job. Money’s not necessarily the end-all and be-all. No one is turned away.’’
She is trying to get the word out, and billboards recently went up in the Boston area advertising the service. She also is looking for donations.
“We get small donations from some companies; AAA has donated,’’ O’Neill said. “A lot of our clients if they get jobs they’ll donate. There’s only so much that I can keep putting in of my own money. We are trying to do as much as we can.
“My husband and I felt we needed to give half the money back, and we did,’’ said O’Neill, adding she believes everyone has a responsibility to “take care of as many and help as many people’’ as possible.
“You don’t have to be a millionaire to help people,’’ she said.
Steve Hatch can be reached at email@example.com.