In these tough economic times, losing a job is more than just an inconvenience; for many, it can be a life-altering event, causing self-confidence to plummet along with income and standards of living. For those who are already at risk, such as those who have drug and alcohol dependencies, the loss of a job can lead to a potentially life-threatening downward spiral. Fortunately, there are programs in New Jersey that help some of these people before it is too late.

One such facility is Crawford House, a private non-profit halfway house in operation since 1978, that works with women who are alcohol or drug-dependent. “The mission of Crawford House is to help women who are homeless and indigent, who are in the early stages of drug and alcohol dependency, become substance free, and lead independent productive lives,” says Executive Director Linda Leyhane.

Located in a farmhouse on a quiet rural street in Skillman, Crawford House has restored hope to many New Jersey women who once thought they had none, as evidenced by the many letters of thanks from former residents found in albums in the waiting room. Critical to the success of Crawford House is a cadre of employers, willing to provide the jobs that give these women the tools and opportunities they need to turn their lives around.

These employers didn’t come along by accident: Crawford House has built ongoing relationships with employers who are ready to lend a helping hand. They include ShopRite and Simply Grazin’ of Montgomery; Smith’s Ace Hardware, Cutter’s Mill, Bon Appetit, and McCaffrey’s in the Princeton Shopping Center; Stop & Shop and Wendy’s in Hillsborough; Red Oak Diner on Route 206; and Kitchen Kapers and Olives in downtown Princeton.

Finding employment for these women is not always easy. “Many of the women have a checkered work history, or have never worked. Resume preparation is difficult because there are big gaps in their employment history. We have to start out at the very beginning with them. Sometimes the first step is to obtain their first photo ID,” says Leyhane.

After the first 30 days of residence, each woman receives orientation and training on how to apply for a job, fill out an application, handle an interview, and other social skills that will help her find and maintain a position. “We hold mock interviews, give them mock applications, and help them choose appropriate clothing to wear. We also practice following directions, how to cope with learning something new, and how to deal with the public. The idea is to build their self-esteem so that they think they can do the job,” Leyhane said.

Crawford House staff work with the women to ensure their job skills are a good match for the position they are seeking, and provide them with clothing, a list of potential employers, and transportation to and from interviews, but the women must choose a potential employer and seek employment themselves. Before they accept any job offer, the women must make a list of the pros and cons of the position. “This helps them learn how to make decisions and weigh the factors before jumping into a job,” Leyhane says.

Most of the jobs are entry-level, retail positions. They are part-time positions, up to 30 hours a week. The women never work on Sunday and must take off one additional day to make sure they attend their programs at Crawford House. They receive a salary, most of which goes into a bank account.

One of the local banks allows them to open bank accounts so that the women can learn how to deposit money, save money, and learn how to make and follow a budget. “A small portion of the money is returned to Crawford House to help defray the costs of room and board, but the rest is held in the savings account until the women graduate from Crawford House, so that they leave here with a bit of a nest egg,” says Leyhane.

Once employed, the residents are not allowed to quit their jobs, call out sick unless medically necessary, or be late. According to Leyhane, “they need to learn to figure out how to thrive in the work place or have conversations with employers or other employees to resolve issues. We are trying to make sure they are ready to live independently and maintain sobriety once they leave.”

George Smith, one of the owners of Smith’s Ace Hardware in the Princeton Shopping Center, speaks highly of the arrangement with Crawford House. “We have been employing women from Crawford House for seven or eight years. Over the years, we have hired dozens. I find most of the women to be mature, have prior work experience, and are quality people.

“The employees are always on time because they are bused in and out. Crawford House has adapted the bus schedule to accommodate the hours and needs of the local business community.”

He stresses that “it’s a win-win situation. We get reliable, mature people to come in and help us, especially if they stay on after they graduate from Crawford House, and it’s nice to give someone a break, because some of these women have been through tough times and often can’t get a job anywhere else.”

Smith and two of his brothers own Smith’s Ace Hardware in the Princeton Shopping Center, as well as the Yardville Supply Company, and Smith’s Ace Hardware stores in Mercerville and Newtown, PA. Soon they will be opening another Ace Hardware store in Chatham.

Smith says he feels lucky, “considering the economy and the fact that two other local Ace Hardware stores within five miles of here have recently gone out of business.” He attributes much of his current success to a loyal customer base and his employees, many of whom have come from Crawford House.

But the family’s economic outlook wasn’t always so rosy. Smith explains that the original store, in Yardville, was started by his maternal grandfather in 1946. Yardville began as a Ready Mix Concrete facility. His mother, who became a stockholder, was a homemaker, while his father, whose background was also in Ready Mix concrete, began working at the family business. The company slowly expanded to include wholesale mason supplies such as bricks, blocks and pavers, and sand; then they added lumber supplies; and finally expanded into hardware as well.

In the 1960s, Smith’s grandfather, hoping to keep the company intact, established a trust with a three-person board of directors. His father became president of the board; his mother’s brother was also a director. In the 1980s, the third director resigned; the new director brought in additional directors, and the newly expanded board forced Smith’s father to retire. Smith and his three brothers, Ed, Drew, and Leigh, all left the company in protest, and the board was forced to run the company itself.

Shortly after, Smith’s father died, and then two years later his mother was killed in a car accident. This sad series of events, though painful, became the catalyst that sparked the Smith brothers’ current economic success.

“After my mother’s death in the early 1990s, her shares of the company stock passed to my brothers and me,” says Smith. “We took the board of directors to court and sued to regain our family’s company.”

He and his brothers lost, but the judge admonished the directors that if the economic outlook of the company, which had been steadily declining, did not turn around, they would be brought back to court and each director would be held personally financially liable.

“In 1997 the board contacted us and offered to return the company to us,” Smith says. “At this point, the business had lost some $500,000 and was basically a shell company.” Nonetheless, the brothers agreed to take control of the company and began the slow process of rebuilding it. The Smiths partnered with Ace Hardware, which provided much needed financial and business support.

The partnership with Ace, along with assistance from many others, helped the Smiths rebuild their family business. In 2002 they opened Smith’s Ace Hardware at the Princeton Shopping Center. Three years later they opened their kitchen store, also in the Princeton Shopping Center. The business has continued to expand with the opening of the Mercerville and Newtown stores, and in 2013 the Chatham store will open.

The business is owned and operated by George and Ed, who run the retail end, and Leigh, who handles the wholesale side of the business. Smith’s uncle and his brother, Drew, sold their shares of stock to the remaining three brothers, all of whom work in the stores alongside their employees.

“We are all hard-working, and have worked our way up from the trenches,” says George. “In high school we were bagging sand, loading trucks — we had to take bags of cement off of railroad cars and hand-stack them on pallets. They didn’t come already on the pallets, like they do today. Every dirty job there was, we did,” he says.

Smith, 64, has been working in the hardware industry for almost 50 years. He worked his way up to management of his family’s business, and remained in management when he left: he was a vice president at Builders General Supply, where he was employed during the years he was not working for his family’s company.

Similarly, his brother Ed was a vice president at Ready Mix Concrete Company. “This management experience helped us revitalize our own business,” Smith says. “We have an idea of what inventory to keep in stock, what our customers need and can’t get at other stores, and we keep our prices fair.”

But he believes the real reason for the brothers’ success was the help and support from Ace Hardware and many others. This is what motivated him to become involved with Crawford House and other charities. “If it weren’t for the support of others in the community, including our customers, we would never have succeeded. I consider us to be very lucky, and very fortunate, and I want to give some of that back and help other people.”

In addition to hiring people from Crawford House, Smith personally helps out with his local chapter of the Raptor Trust Rehabilitation Center by donating money and time as a volunteer. He also offers them a 10 percent discount on anything they buy from his stores. This year, he donated 10 percent of his sales during the Princeton Sandy Relief Fund Event.

“We benefited from the hurricane,” he says. “We had had a horrible year because there was no snow and we were stuck with lots of inventory, but this fall we had Hurricane Sandy and then the snowstorm, so we were able to make up the sales and so this year will be a profitable year. This is another reason why I want to give back to the community — we do well when there is bad weather, and I want to help people out.” The company also supports local charities by providing door prizes and other donations during fundraisers and community events.

Smith freely admits that his partnership with Crawford House benefits his Princeton store as well, because the women are such good employees. “All of the Crawford House residents work at our Princeton location. We have three other stores in the general area, and if they weren’t too far away, we would hire Crawford House residents at all of them.”

He added that many of the women he has employed remain in the Princeton area because of the strong support system in place, and have continued working at Smith’s Ace Hardware. “In fact, I have four women working for me right now who were graduates from Crawford. While most start out doing cashier or stock work, those who stay often get promoted. One graduate is now a department manager, responsible for ordering products for her department.”

To graduate successfully, Crawford House residents must complete all treatment goals, exhibit behavior that demonstrates sobriety, and have a place to live, a job, a support network, and an aftercare treatment plan. Leyhane concedes that “not all of the women who enter Crawford House successfully complete the program, and some of the graduates do return to substance abuse.”

Crawford House keeps in touch with graduates, contacting them at 6 month, 12 month, and 18 month intervals to assess how well they are thriving. “We do not monitor progress in terms of ‘success,’” Leyhane explains. “We keep track of specific outcomes, such as: do the women get and hold a job; are they reunited with their families; and do they remain involved with a support network and obtain a sponsor. When considered in this light, the outcomes for most of the Crawford House graduates are very good.”

One of the Crawford House graduates still working at Smith’s Ace Hardware is a woman named Erin, who wishes to keep her last name anonymous. She began working there 15 months ago, when she was a resident at Crawford House. When she graduated, she decided to stay in the Princeton area because of the strong support she found here. And one of the deciding factors was her job at the hardware store.

“It is a really good work environment, pretty stress-free and very supportive. Everyone knows that I am in recovery — I don’t drink or do drugs, and no one pressures me about that,” says Erin. “There is always someone to talk to if I am having a bad day. But probably George is the main reason. He is a wonderfully supportive man, who is always willing to give people a second chance.”

Erin credits Crawford House and Smith with turning her life around. She was referred to Crawford House by the staff while undergoing treatment at a rehabilitation facility. They told her that “Crawford House has the highest success rate of people staying sober for a long period of time. A lot of rehab centers know it’s the best in the state. I knew it was for me — that’s what I wanted. Drugs and alcohol had ruined my life and I wanted to get my life back.”

She says that Crawford House was more than just a program. “It gave me a place to be able to feel, to take away all the numbness caused by drugs and alcohol. I had never really grown up or learned how to be an adult, how to think, or behave, or feel, or take responsibility. Crawford House was a safe place which allowed me to learn who I was, how to grow, and how to grow up. It changed my outlook on life; really changed me from the inside out, and gave me a more positive outlook on life.”

Being a resident wasn’t always easy. “Crawford House is no nonsense — there’s no whining. You learn how to grow up. You can’t hide the way you feel. If you are sad or angry you have to talk about it, and go through all of those raw emotions.” It was exactly this philosophy that changed Erin. “The staff are with you every step of the way and really help you,” she says.

According to Erin, one of the best parts of being a Crawford House resident is the ability to take advantage of the mentoring program and the support network that exists in the Princeton area. “George is not the only wonderful employer; there are several other businesses in the Princeton shopping center that hire Crawford House residents. They are all very supportive.”

Erin had a mentor when she was at Crawford House, and in fact still has a mentor at Smith’s Ace Hardware — another former resident of Crawford House, who works with her and offers support whenever Erin needs it. Erin explains that the mentoring program was very important to her, especially when she began at Crawford House. “It was so important to me to talk to people in the Alcoholics Anonymous program, people who had already gone through the Crawford House program, who could help me to deal with the rules, the issues I was facing and to help me realize that I’m not a bad person.”

Erin says she feels so strongly about the importance of the mentoring program that she herself has become a mentor to Crawford residents. She visits on at least a weekly basis, and helps take the residents to their AA or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, or if they need to go to court hearings. “I stay with them, provide support during the stress and confusion of going to court.”

And she has become a sponsor for someone at AA so that she can provide the kind of support that helped her gain — and maintain –– sobriety. “I really want to give back to Crawford House,” she says. “I recently went to see one of my counselors there, who still works at Crawford House. I thanked her over and over for all of the help and support she gave me and told her how great she was.”

Erin is not the only woman who has maintained close ties with Crawford House. Many of the graduates in the area serve as mentors and also act as a support network for each other. “Some of the women who serve as mentors went through Crawford House 20 years ago, and they are still involved,” Erin says. “It is part of the program at Crawford House — they encourage us to stay in contact with the women we became friends with there, instead of the old friends we were involved with before.”

She also helps out with the Crawford House residents who come to work at Smith’s Ace Hardware. She tries to let them know that she is there for them to talk to if they need extra support, and explains to them that they “are lucky to be working at Ace. You can develop more responsibilities, build more confidence in yourself. This is more than just a casual work environment; our co-workers are more like members of the family.”

Thanks to Crawford House and her job at Smith’s Ace Hardware, Erin says she’s now planning for her future. “I have just started applying to four-year colleges: Rutgers, Rider, and the College of New Jersey. I failed out of three schools before I got sober. It is a gift that I even have a second chance.” She is expecting to start college in the fall and wants to become a chemistry teacher. And she will continue to work at Smith’s Ace Hardware part-time as well.

“I am hoping that a mom somewhere will read this news article and leave it out for her daughter to see so that maybe her daughter will consider going to Crawford House and change her life like I have changed mine,” she says.

Crawford House, 362 Sunset Road, Skillman 08558; 908-874-5153; Linda Leyhane, executive director.

Smith’s Ace Hardware, Princeton Shopping Center, 301 North Harrison Street, Princeton 08540; 609-430-4300; George Smith, owner.

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