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Road to independence begins with a job and a sense of control
by Monica Soto
Seattle Times Eastside business reporter
Elaine Gordon has received late-night phone calls from worried single mothers who need $30 so their electricity won't be turned off. She has talked some of them into hanging on, even when their circumstances seem bleak. Gordon, 47, is not a charity service or a saint. She's just a business owner who understands where they've been.
"They feel beaten down before they walk in the door," said Gordon, owner of an Eastside cleaning service. "I want to show them the simple road back." Gordon, owner of Redmond-based Elaine Gordon American Maid Service, is a product of welfare from New York City 's Lower East Side . That she climbed out of the cracks herself, though, is not enough.
She hires women on the state's welfare rolls as contract laborers and teaches them how to book clients and juggle a weekly schedule. The women clean the types of houses they've only seen in magazines. Always, they appreciate the chance. "It's built my self-esteem up knowing I can work and contribute to my family," said Tina Thometz, 37, a soft-spoken women with seven children who attends church on Sundays and tears up when she thinks of where she's been. "My kids are well-dressed, well-fed - that makes me feel good."
Since Gordon opened her business in April 1988, it has grown to service roughly 135 Eastside clients a week. As a contract agency, Gordon books clients and passes the jobs on to the 80 people who work through her service. Often, she goes to the Department of Social and Health Services' Eastside office to look for some of her new recruits.
Gordon helps each new independant contractor applies for a business license. The women then choose their own hours and how many houses a week they clean. The service charges $86 per cleaning to steady clients; the price varies for others. An independant contractor earns roughly $42 a house. If they clean two houses a day, that's $500 a week.
Aside from state referrals, most of Gordon's new contractors come to her via word of mouth. "I'll help anybody, whether they're on welfare or not," she said. "I can put anyone to work." Gordon's own work ethic stems from her childhood in New York City 's Lilian Wald housing project. She was the second of two children, born to a mother who battled emphysema and heart disease before dying at 44.
"I don't feel like I had much of a childhood," said Gordon, a diminutive woman who emanates the energy of someone half her age. "Where I lived, your survival skills have to be real sharp. I had to automatically assume a lot of responsibility." At 9, she began her first business venture, ironing neighbors' shirts for a nickel apiece. Her earnings paid for doughnuts after church and groceries when her mother needed help, which was often. Sometimes she bought the family Christmas tree during the holidays. At 17, Gordon landed a job as a receptionist for an up-and-coming hairstylist. She learned many of her business skills there.
But Gordon's bout with the system was not over. She moved to Florida and had a child out of wedlock. She found herself back on welfare. Gordon went to work cleaning houses. Within two years, she had built up her own maid service, contracting work out. "I had a gift in business," she said. "Some people can sing. I know how to make money."
Gordon eventually married and opted to homeschool her children for the next decade before reopening her maid service here in 1988. How many women has she helped, get off welfare since? "Probably close to 100," she said. "I've had this business for so long it's hard to remember all of their names and faces."
State Rep. Kathy Lambert, R-Redmond, met Gordon at a seminar. The women now work together on weeknights writing an entrepreneurial work manual. Gordon and Lambert plan to sell the how-to guide for starting a house-cleaning service to welfare offices throughout the nation. The manual is just part of a plan Gordon is developing in hopes of selling welfare offices on the benefits of entrepreneurial work.
"If Elaine studies karate, she becomes a black belt," Lambert said. "Whatever she does, she does to the best." Gordon is not the only one in her household who's making waves. Two years ago, her son, Paul, 17, helped raise $240,000 to help his friend Eric Graeve of Issaquah receive a liver transplant. Right now, he's finishing a book, "There Is Still Hope Left in America 's Youth."
Perhaps the strongest testaments for Gordon come from her own workers. Robin Blunt, a single mother with three children, has been on and off welfare for nine years - a process, she said, that "makes you feel worthless." After getting the run-around at the state welfare office, Gordon and Lambert went down there with her. "I walked out with three business cards," she said, with a tone of astonishment. "I had welfare case workers handing me their cards."
Blunt has been off welfare for three months. The biggest joy, she said, has been to give her children lunch money and to pay for their school photos. "To be able to write that check," she said. "It's a self-esteem thing. It makes you feel better."
Gordon considers each independent contractor success story her own. And however bittersweet, she looks forward to the day when each of them moves on. "To me doing this is just such a joy," she said. "You see how much their lives are changing and growing. It's like miracles happen."
Monica Soto's phone message number is 206515-5632. Her e-mail address is msoto@seattletimes. com
Copyright ©1999 The Seattle Times Company