Tyrica Hooks had a lot of jobs. She didn't want another one.
"I wanted a career," said Hooks, a 38-year-old from the District.
Fast food, telemarketing, construction — she had done all of those things, on and off. She had sold drugs and stolen cars, too. Nothing had much long-term potential. And some came with serious drawbacks: Hooks spent a lot of her younger years in prison.
It was while she was selling cellphones last year on Martin Luther King Avenue SE that Hooks noticed people walking past every day wearing shirts that read "Center for Employment Training." Curious, she stopped them.
They explained that CET was a job-training program run by So Others Might Eat, a nonprofit group that does a lot of different things in the District, such as feeding the hungry and finding housing for people experiencing homelessness.
SOME's CET program offers classes that lead to certification in electronic health records. It also does training toward becoming a medical administrative assistant or building maintenance service technician. Hooks learned that if she qualified, she wouldn't have to pay a dime.
"I was like, 'I'll be up there tomorrow,' " she said. "I guess they thought I was playing."
She wasn't, though those who knew her when she was younger probably didn't expect much. Said Hooks, "I was one of those children that parents would look at and say, 'You know what? She's going to be dead before she turns 20.' "
Hooks couldn't really argue otherwise. When she was running on the streets of Kenilworth, she garnered a reputation as a fighter. "I didn't think I would make it this long," she said.
But the aim of SOME's CET program — to train her for a career — sounded promising. And Hooks was ready.
"They say when you get older, you get wiser, your body gets tired," she said. "I think that's what it was."
She threw herself into the five-day-a-week program, taking all the health-field-related classes that were offered. Her instructor saw potential in Hooks, even if it meant knocking off some rough edges.
"I'm sitting like this in class," Hooks said, demonstrating with a slouch and a scowl her first few days at SOME's CET program. "She's like: 'Nuh-uh. Sit up.' It's like she molded me into the person that I became."
Hooks learned how to scan, categorize and file myriad medical records. She learned how to check insurance, enter new patients into the computer and schedule their appointments. She worked on her demeanor, how to interact with the public. "Be reasonable with them, have patience with them and listen — that's the most important thing," she said.
SOME's main building on O Street NW houses medical, dental and behavioral health clinics. Hooks interned there, putting into practice what she had learned in the classroom. When she graduated from CET earlier this year, she did an externship at SOME. She was hired part time and — when she proved so adept and so eager — then she was hired full time.
Hooks's title is administrative assistant for the behavioral health service, one of three SOME employees who staff the front desk.
"I try to build a relationship with the clients, just to make them feel comfortable," she said. "I don't want them to feel like I'm not there for them. And I understand where they're coming from, because I've been there."
Hooks said she recognizes herself in the clients who come to SOME. Like her, they've had rough lives, born into poverty or tumbled into it by trauma or addiction.
"I always say, 'Keep pushing,' " Hooks said. "That's my favorite word. You've got to keep pushing. Don't give up. They see me and they know: If it worked for me, it can work for you."
Last year, 95 students graduated from SOME's CET program. Some 77 of them went to work. Their average starting wage was $13.75 an hour.
Hooks is already making plans for her next challenge. She wants to become an addiction counselor and is exploring the training she'll need for that.
Here's something I hope you'll explore: Making a gift to So Others Might Eat. The charity is a partner in The Washington Post's Helping Hand. Your donation will help fund programs such as the Center for Employment Training.
To donate online, visit posthelpinghand.com and click on "Donate." To donate by mail, make a check payable to "So Others Might Eat" and send it to SOME, Attn: Helping Hand, 71 O St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20001.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.