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Social Worker proud to see job training program become reality TV

A scene from “Get To Work.”

How does it feel having a job training program you helped create turned into a reality television show?

“It is cool,” social worker Robert Carmona, MSSW, said. “I’m really proud I’ve got to tell you.”

Carmona is a co-creator of STRIVE International, an initiative that teaches people who are considered unemployable the skills they need to land and keep a job.

The program started in 1984 in the basement community center of the James Weldon Johnson Housing Project of New York City’s East Harlem community.

STRIVE is now featured on the Sundance Channel’s new reality series “Get To Work,” which each week follows a group of participants in the San Diego branch of the program. Some of the clients have struggled with drug or alcohol problems, been recently released from jail, or just have difficulty dealing with authority figures such as a supervisor.

Some social workers are concerned reality television programs are exploitative because they use people at some of the lowest points in their lives as entertainment. That is not so with “Get To Work,” Carmona said.

In fact Carmona, 60, said he believes there is an unmet demand for reality television programming that is uplifting and shows how people are overcoming adversity in these tough economic times.

“I have not heard a bad word man about ‘Get to Work’ and I’ll tell you why,” he said by telephone from New York City. “I think the reaction in the main is that people were touched because they put such a human element in it. We are hungry as a society to reconnect with our humanity.”

Sundance Channel officials heard about the STRIVE program and decided it would make a good non-fiction program for the network. STRIVE is an international franchise with sites in 20 U.S. cities, three sites in Israel, and single sites in England, Ireland and Scotland.

Each site tailors the boot camp-styled program to meet the needs of the local population.

Carmona said he would be happy if “Get to Work” is renewed for a second season. However, just being on air for one season creates a good the opportunity for many more people to learn about the program.

Robert Carmona

If “Get to Work” is renewed Carmona hopes Sundance will film in other locations. For instance, STRIVE in Baltimore started out as a program to help men be better fathers. In New York the program takes on a gentler and more nurturing role because more participants are younger people with less experience, he said.

Carmona’s own life story would make an engaging television series.

“It’s interesting,” he said. “There is a spiritual element to it.”

Carmona, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was born in New York City. He became a heroin addict at age 15 and was eventually arrested for armed robbery and pled guilty to a five-year sentence.

He entered a drug treatment program to get a shorter two-year sentence. However, once in the program Carmona realized what could happen to his young daughter if his addiction continued. This prompted him to buckle down and get serious about recovery.

Part of the program required Carmona to get a job so he went to the Vista program to find work. But it was tough to find a job considering he was an ex-offender and recovering addict. But one day he overhead a counselor on the phone talking about a difficult-to-fill job.

“They said they needed an ex-offender who knows Spanish and has had two years of college and I said, ‘Hey that’s me,’” he said.

Carmona landed the job and began working with young people in the juvenile justice system. He said that job came at a good time because it kept him from relapsing into addiction at a time when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was beginning to affect intravenous drug users.

Carmona discovered that human services was a career path where he could use the negative experiences in his life in a positive way. So he went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from the Columbia University School of Social Work.

His love of social work has been passed to the next generation. His daughter Elissa Malaica Carmona-Greaves, is also a master’s degree social worker.

“It was like God kept me alive to do this work,” he said.

“Get To Work” premiered on Aug. 13 and eight episodes have been filmed. The program will be shown on Mondays on the Sundance Channel at 10:30 p.m. until September 3 when it moves to a 10 p.m. time slot.

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