A Community-Based Approach to Job Training

I. Toni Thomas, founder, president, and CEO of Toni Thomas Associates, Inc., poses with graduates from the Community Empowerment Training Academy (CETA). Photo: I. Toni Thomas

On a Wednesday afternoon in a small classroom Andrea Hawkins prepared for the next exam. She is a student in the Community Empowerment Training Academy's (CETA) medical office assistant (MOA) course. “Well, I'm already in the medical field, so this will just add to the experience I already have,” she explained. Hawkins currently works as a home health aide, but receiving a MOA certification means finding a better job at a private medical office or hospital. Over the last decade CETA has helped students like Hawkins gain employable skills to enter or re-enter the workforce. Using a community-focused plan, CETA looks for new ways to help their students reach their goals.

Toni Thomas Associates, Inc.

Founded in 1995, Toni Thomas Associates, Inc., is a community-based organization focusing on a comprehensive approach to changing lives. “We focus on the individual who can benefit from programs and services to become more economically and socially empowered,” said I. Toni Thomas, who serves as president and CEO. Upon retiring from the federal government after 37 years, Thomas founded the organization as a way of giving back to the community that gave so much to her. 

According to the company profile the organization “represents a resource for changing the status quo and enabling a community experiencing various social, economic and human service issues.” Toni Thomas also helps private developers by “bringing about community buy-in and support which often can be elusive.”


CETA, one of Toni Thomas' more well-known programs, began in 2004. “It's been very successful in providing students with skills to earn better than a living wage,” said Thomas. With an annual goal of serving at least 40 students (depending on funding), CETA is perfect for a person who is unemployed, underemployed, or could benefit from retraining. After students finish the program they have the opportunity to take an official certification exam and also receive job placement assistance. Sometimes the best-case scenario is that the student receives an externship or a job-shadowing experience that leads to employment. 

One person who hopes to get an externship is Gabrielle Thomas, a CETA student who works as a residential aide for an adult hospice. “When I finish, I want to train for phlebotomy eventually,” she explained. “You have to start somewhere and I thought MOA was a great place to start.” Another student looking for employment is Dirk Estes, Jr. “Being a medical assistant, as far as helping people, is something that I always wanted to do,” he said. “It would probably open more doors for me.” His goal is to work at Washington Hospital Center. 

Initially CETA offered a commercial driver's license (CDL) course funded by the DC Department of Employment Services (DOES). However, with limited funding CETA dropped the course. Currently the program is licensed to offer the MOA and a computer skills course, with plans to add security-guard training in the near future. While DOES still funds the courses, Toni Thomas continually bids on new contracts to bring more courses to the program. Specifically Thomas wants to bring A+ and IT training and reestablish the CDL course. 


“Because this is a community-based school, convenience is very important,” said Dierdre Anderson, the MOA course instructor. “We're a smaller class, which makes it more intimate and more personalized.” As a result each student gets individual attention, and instruction is not confined to just the classroom. “I just think that's better for them ... you have an opportunity to get to know each of the students a little better and they work very well together.” For example, Beverly Day was in another program but couldn't afford it. “I had to go to the Department of Employment Services and they gave me a listing,” she explained. “I chose this one because I felt more comfortable here.” Despite only being in her second week of classes Day said she had no problem adjusting. 

However, many choose the program because it is in the community. “A lot of them want to be able to get this training and then use their skills to give back to the community,” Anderson explained. This is the case for Day, who wants to work with children after receiving her certification.

Life After Graduation

“One of the things we stress is what you learn here in class, you will have to adjust once you get into the work environment,” Anderson explained. She compares the experience to a high school graduate entering college: “In high school you learn so many different things. When you go to college it's a different experience, but there are certain skills they expect you to have and they will add on to that.” When Anderson talks to her past students she asks, “Is it what you thought it would be?” The answer: “Yes, and then some.” 

Toni Thomas Associates, Inc., is located at 1920 Martin Luther King, Jr., Ave. SE Washington, DC 20020. For more information call 202-610-1080 or email info@tonithomas.com.