It was set to be the dawn of a new day: The Shirlington Employment and Education Center (SEEC) moving into new offices at the Arlington Mill Community Center on the west end of Columbia Pike, ready for a forward-looking era serving the evolving needs of day-laborers in the local community.
Move-in occurred March 1, 2020. Just 15 days later, the Arlington County government closed all its facilities as the COVID crisis rolled in, leaving SEEC effectively homeless.
The organization resumed operations in its new(ish) home on Aug. 9, having done what it could in the intervening 17 months to maintain connections to and support for those it serves.
Moving to the Columbia Pike location from its previous office further south in Shirlington was “a natural, it makes a lot of sense,” SEEC executive director Andres Tobar said in remarks Aug. 19 to the Kiwanis Club of South Arlington, where he serves as president.
“More than 50 percent of our clients are coming from up and down the Pike,” said Tobar, who since 2004 has served as the organization’s executive director.
The ongoing redevelopment of the Four Mile Run area led the organization to lose two successive office spaces, but having modern facilities will allow work to proceed in “a much more organized fashion,” Tobar said.
“We know where [clients] are and we know how to get in touch with them,” he said.
While in the Four Mile Run/Shirlington area, SEEC had overseen a day-laborer pavilion, where those seeking jobs could connect with those who needed their services. But the space was requisitioned for the expansion of Jennie Dean Park, and numbers of day-laborers who congregated there had been steadily falling over the years.
Now, day-laborers can register with SEEC, which will serve as a referral clearinghouse that also works to ensure both sides in the transaction are satisfied.
“We’re trying to come up with common ground so it’s fair to you and fair to them,” Tobar said.
Having a central clearinghouse proves “extremely helpful” to both sides, said Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington), who participated in the Aug. 19 meeting.
Working out of his home for more than a year, Tobar oversaw an organization with a small staff that focused on helping laborers through the economic downfall that accompanied the first blast of COVID. The organization supported efforts to provide rental assistance and food to its clients, most of whom are from Central America.
The organization also worked to encourage the immigrant community to get COVID vaccines. Working through Alexandria-based Neighborhood Health, Tobar and staff registered more than 300 people for the inoculations.
Even absent public-health problems, cold-weather months often prove the most challenging time of year for day-laborers, as jobs dry up.
“I’m trying to prepare. It’s going to be a very tough winter,” Tobar said. “We don’t know what the situation is going to be.”
SEEC was born in 2000 after more than a decade of a sometimes tumultuous relationship between mostly African-American residents of the Four Mile Run Valley community and the largely Latino day-laborers who began congregating along South Four Mile Run Drive in search of work. With the assistance of the Arlington County government (which continues to provide some funding), the two sides worked out an arrangement to provide designated space for laborers and ensuring they did not spill over into residential neighborhoods.