T.J. & Alyssa

T.J. & Alyssa portrait photo

In March of this year, Tompkins Weekly profiled a local couple, Thomas “TJ” Burlingame and Alyssa Perison, and their struggle to find adequate housing after nearly a year of living in a makeshift 8-foot by 10-foot hut in The Jungle. With the assistance of Danielle Harrington, Housing and Energy Services Director at Tompkins Community Action, Burlingame and Perison were able to secure an apartment at The Overlook at West Hill. Friends, family, and community members came together to furnish the unit and stock its pantry, and the new residents are relieved to be settling in. “It makes us more motivated to do things,” Burlingame told Tompkins Weekly. “Now, there’s no doubt in my mind that we can do anything.”

With this newfound self-efficacy and stability, the couple was ready to redouble their job-hunting efforts that had long been impeded by their lack of a safe and functional home base. Burlingame was referred to Challenge Workforce Solutions, a local non-profit now in its fiftieth year of providing services to individuals facing barriers to gainful employment. While Challenge is best known in the community for working with individuals with developmental disabilities, it also runs several different programs for job-seekers who receive public assistance or have legal issues. In Burlingame’s case, he qualified for the Non-Custodial Program (NCP), which provides assistance to parents who are court-ordered to seek employment to meet their child support obligations.

Burlingame and Perison met with Challenge’s DSS Programs Manager Geno Tournour to get help with résumés, cover letters, and interview skills. Tournour learned that both had significant experience in food service and immediately reached out to Larry Workman, General Manager of Challenge Contract Staffing. For over thirty years, this program has been providing community-based job opportunities for Challenge participants while meeting the dining and dishwashing needs of three of the area’s largest employers: Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Wegmans. Each week, Challenge’s crews deliver hundreds of shifts and wash over a quarter-million dishes.

As fortune would have it, Workman had two open positions at Cornell—one in dishwashing and one in custodial work. Burlingame and Perison interviewed and they both started this week.

The couple is immensely grateful for the reliable income as well as the supportive work environment. Says Perison, “One thing that caught my attention right away is that there’s a lot of camaraderie, as opposed to a lot of the workplaces I’ve been in where it’s just a lot of competition.” In addition to day-to-day management and training from Workman and his team, they will continue to receive individualized assistance and encouragement from Tournour as they progress in their careers.

Now, with a sound roof over their heads, two steady paychecks, and an expanded support network, the couple can focus on their next big life goal: planning their wedding for June 2.

“It’s all coming together,” Burlingame exclaims. “And now, we want to share our story and inspire other people.” Adds Perison, “There are options. And there is hope.”