When Lisa Harris first came to Heartisans Marketplace in February 2016, she believed she had yet to find her calling. Unemployed, she had tried cosmetology, logistics work and dental hygiene school.
But after three months of career training and an aptitude test, she was able to find direction through Heartisans. Now Harris, 43, is employed as an archive specialist at KSA Engineers with plans to graduate from Kilgore College in May.
"I'd tried all kinds of things but couldn't find my place, but Heartisans helped me find the direction I'm supposed to go in," Harris said. "I believe that there are people in your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime, and I expect Heartisans to be a part of mine for a lifetime."
Heartisans celebrated its third anniversary Thursday with a graduation ceremony at First Baptist Church in Longview for Harris and 26 other program graduates.
Heartisans CEO Julee Rachels founded it to help unemployed or underemployed women get the customized job training needed to find long-term careers.
The nonprofit group also sells artisan products made by volunteers at its Methvin Street storefront to fund its career training program.
"I wanted women to have jobs and be able to support their children and didn't have a clue what that looked like (when we started)," Rachels said. "We learned as we went."
Rachels said the community's support has been the most important factor in Heartisans' success during its first three years. That network has continued to grow, now including more than 50 volunteers in its store and craft studios, as well as a 10-member advisory board. The marketplace also hired its first employee, Program Director LaRaslum Williams, this past year to oversee job training.
Heartisans plans to hire a second full-time employee this year and will continue to grow until the community's needs are met, Rachels said.
"There's still that gap (in available services), and we're the only ones filling it," she said. "That's why we keep doing this."
Today, 100 percent of Heartisans graduates, who complete from three to six months of training, are either employed or in school. Rachels said her relationships with the women, as a friend and an adviser, continue long after training ends.
"We don't drop them when they get a job," she said. "We know what their career paths need to be, so we look into the community for those jobs. ... I just have a different network than they do."
Heartisans President Renee Robertson said the program has helped one woman get out of homelessness, and another mother of five no longer needs government assistance to take care of her family. Now, it's all about sustaining that mission.
"We are growing so much that we are now putting the infrastructure in place to make sure we are around for a long time," she said.
The graduates of Thursday's ceremony, which Rachels hopes to make an annual event, are employed at area schools, Longview Regional Medical Center, Convergys and elsewhere. One has started her own business.
Some of the graduates cried, and others testified to Rachels' impact on their lives during the ceremony. Many of the honorees, however, had to miss the event because of work. But Rachels said she wasn't upset about that.
"I said, 'We'll miss you,' " she said. "But that's the point."