By Jerry Duggan
As director of the Corporate Work-Study Program (CWSP) and president and CEO of Cristo Rey Work Study Program, Inc. at Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory School of Houston, Misty Helm is helping guide young men and women toward a successful future.
Since its founding in 2009, Cristo Rey Jesuit has been committed to meeting the educational needs of an underserved population. Students all come from families with incomes below the federal poverty line.
In order to make a college preparatory education accessible for them, Helm runs a nonprofit, temporary employment agency within the school. The goal is to connect students with part-time employers for whom they work one day a week for the entirety of the school year.
In exchange for their labor, students earn money that is applied directly to the cost of their Cristo Rey Jesuit education and attend a school they otherwise would not have been able to afford.
For Helm, this role is the culmination of years of honing her own skill set.
“I spent years in my career working my way up the corporate ladder and was very successful in several fields, but there was something missing,” Helm said. “I wanted to do something I felt I was making a difference in people’s lives, particularly the lives of young people.”
Helm finds this role particularly rewarding because she is a first-generation college student herself.
“I know the barriers these young people face when it comes to attending college or finding direction for their future, because I have been there myself,” she said. “Especially in the high school years, these kids don’t know what they don’t know, and it can be overwhelming.”
Helm’s job at Cristo Rey Jesuit, which she has held since 2019, entails maintaining relationships with corporate work-study partners – employers who hire Cristo Rey Jesuit students for temporary employment – and managing the day-to-day operations of the work-study program.
“Everything from new employee paperwork, to cultivating new relationships with partners, to guiding students in making decisions about their future, is part of my job,” she said.
Helm has focused on three primary goals: broadening the type of employers with which Cristo Rey Jesuit partners, encouraging these employers to maintain relationships with their students after their high school years are over and connecting students with employers that may give them a sense of what they ultimately want to pursue as a career.
“In Texas, we skew heavily toward the oil and gas industry, but have made efforts to broaden our partners over these last few years to include all kinds of things – law firms, schools, hospitals, nonprofit organizations and more,” she said.
The fruits of her labor are evident.
“100% of our graduates are accepted into college thanks to the quality education they receive at Cristo Rey Jesuit and their valuable work experience,” she said. “Also, because of the CWSP, our students are heading into college with some sense of their natural talents and career interests, which is huge to have a grasp of at that age.”
Although Helm had no previous exposure to the Jesuits, in her three years at Cristo Rey Jesuit, she has come to realize that the Jesuits’ emphasis on cura personalis – caring for the whole person – is exactly what had been missing from her previous career and precisely what the CWSP aims to do.
“We want to give students a chance to afford a college preparatory education, sure, but we also want to provide them with employment that is personally fulfilling, encourages them to explore their passions and sets them up well for the future,” she said.
She cites as one particular example of an employer caring for the whole Cristo Rey Jesuit student a situation in which a student’s parent died of COVID in the past year.
“Upon hearing of the student’s loss, the employer stepped in to pay for the remainder of the student’s tuition for the upcoming year, to ensure that their education would not suffer in the wake of their personal loss,” she said.
Stories like this – and of Cristo Rey Jesuit students, upon graduation of college, being hired by their once-temporary employer – are a perfect example of why Helm finds this line of work so rewarding.
“I love opening doors for people, providing them with opportunities and getting them where they need to go, so that they can be successful in their future,” she said. “This is exactly the kind of role I have been looking for in my career, and I’m thankful Cristo Rey Jesuit gave me this opportunity to grow and serve alongside their wonderful young men and women.”