Erik Clemons, president and CEO of ConnCAT, in his office at Science Park. Mary O'Leary
Erik Clemons, president and CEO of ConnCAT, in his office at Science Park.

NEW HAVEN —  Since 2012, ConnCAT has provided free vocational training in medical billing and coding, phlebotomy and culinary arts fields that have job openings, aided by the relationships the organization has built with employers.

On the medical end, that is Yale New Haven Hospital, the second largest workplace in the city, which will need coders and phlebotomists for the next decade, Erik Clemons, president and CEO of ConnCAT said. He said the intent of the culinary school was to find employment, mainly for men of color and those who need a second chance.

With ConnCAT’s skills-oriented training, academic support, career preparation and work with the hospitality industry and healthcare agencies, the organization’s goals and success could serve as a road map for other cities seeking to revitalize neighborhoods.

The non profit organization has a 70 percent retention rate for its adult programs. It is modeled after Pittsburgh’s Manchester Bidwell Corp. education center and is an affiliate of Manchester Bidwell’s National Center for Arts & Technology.

Clemons said the people who come to them seeking a more stable work life are staying afloat by working several low-paying jobs. He said full-time skilled work not only gives them a level of independence, it also means “liberation from the suffering of systemic poverty.”

He said the United States deals on and off with the manifestations of poverty: poor housing, health disparities and educational deficits, but not head on with poverty itself. A stable income not only helps the individual think differently about themselves, it makes a positive impact on their family and ultimately the community.

While Clemons now considers himself a person of privilege with his work and status in the community, “I have lived in poverty longer than I have lived in privilege” he said, of growing up in Norwalk and Stamford.

‘What is needed’

Terah Coghill-Wilson, 38, and David Reaves 25, both part-time workers at a local market, are enrolled in the 6-month series of classes and 40-hour externship in culinary arts that began in June.

Coghill-Wilson, whose parents died young, has been on her own a long time, holding down customer service jobs in several states that never provided the opportunity to advance. 

“It was really discouraging,” she said of her work life before getting into ConnCAT. 

“Poverty in terms of resources leads to poverty of spirit,” Clemons said.

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Moving around the country with little money, Coghill-Wilson said the divide between the haves and the have-nots is palpable. Like many of the young people who come to Clemon’s program, she has been able to take courses toward a bachelor’s degree but is still waiting to finish, given the cost.

She has always wanted to run a cafe-bookstore and feels the small business skills and culinary training she is receiving will help.

“You want to address the issues and give people skills but this is such a family environment. There is always someone here to talk to. This program is exactly what is needed,” Coghill-Wilson said.

Reaves, who will lose healthcare coverage when he turns 26 this month, as he goes off his parents’ policy, felt he should pass up the ConnCAT opportunity to work and help out his parents, but they encouraged him to take the classes.

He also has always been interested in culinary work and is excited about the ConnCAT program.

“I finally have an avenue to move towards a future that will bring me passion and be sustainable and give me the necessary income to allow me to live a happy life,” Reaves said.


Six years after graduating from ConnCAT, Omar Downer, 39, is where he wants to be.

He is a phlebotomist on the night shift at the St. Raphael campus of Yale New Haven Hospital, working 32 hours a week in a position that provides health insurance and much professional satisfaction.

A native of Jamaica, he went to high school school in Hamden and now lives in Newhallville in New Haven. 

He came to ConnCAT from work as an electronics technician at several companies in the area, following training at New England Tech. Downer said the pay was good, but job security was shaky.

Omar Downer loves his job as a phlebotomist after training at ConnCAT

“The jobs were being sent overseas. I kept getting laid off after the products were shipped to China or India,” Downer said. He worked for Conntech Products Corp. in Hamden for four years and then Honeywell Life Safety in North Branford.

Laid off with unemployment compensation, he was looking for another opportunity and was drawn to the healthcare field, inspired by his mother who works as a certified nursing associate, and his sister who is a nurse. “ Healthcare is always going to be there, so it was a safe bet,” Downer said.

He found out about ConnCAT from a friend and was part of the first class. Clemons said 40 percent of the phlebotomists at Yale New Haven Hospital were trained at ConnCAT.

Downer said the ConnCat course, which in addition to the skill itself, prepared students generally for the work world, while the month-long externship at the St. Raphael campus gave him the experience and confidence for the job. It also prepared him to take the test for a phlebotomist license. 

Like other new graduates, he started out per diem for U.S. Labs for about five months, traveling around the state mainly to nursing homes where a phlebotomist was needed.

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He then went to St. Raphael’s looking for work, starting per diem and then 24 hours a week before quickly taking the 32-hour high shift. Downer said they remembered him from his externship, which helped.

“I learn from everybody. I’m always up on the latest techniques. I love being a phlebotomist. It bought out a passion in me,” Downer said. He said he meets people from all walks of life. “It is a rich experience.”

Downer said he contemplates getting an associate degree from Gateway with the hope he could then teach phlebotomy. The hospital does have a tuition reimbursement program for workers looking to get into a different health field or to become a nurse, but Downer said he is not interested in that.

Teaching seems like a logical option at some point. He has done as many as 60 blood draws a night and, as much as he loves it, Downer said it is very repetitious. “How long can I do it?” he asked.

He would recommend ConnCAT to anyone looking for a career change. “It disciplines you as to what employers are looking for. It is one of the best decisions I made,” Downer said.

Multiple Jobs

Stacie Tavaras has had a different experience in general, although she views the ConnCAT phlebotomy course as a plus that she has been able to combine with other skills.

For decades, she has had multiple part-time jobs that fit around her children’s needs when they were young, after she got a divorce. Now that her children are grown and she is remarried, things are better, but her desire to work in a hospital as a registered nurse continues to be out of reach without adding more to the thousands she already owes in educational debt.

She is an example of residents who need multiple jobs to make ends meet or whose training still needs to be enhanced, despite a considerable financial investment.

Stacie Tavaras is certified in multiple healthcare applications, including phlebotomist.

Tavaras, 54, came to Connecticut when her now ex-husband was enrolled in a nursing program at Yale University. With a bachelor’s degree in social studies and psychology, she then went to work as a case manager at Jewish Family Services and later at The Connection in Middletown in a similar position where she stayed for about eight years until she got hurt.

Rethinking her job options, she decided to pursue nursing and first became a certified nursing assistant to try out hospital work before starting the two-year program to become a licensed practical nurse, graduating in 2012.

She then ran into serious roadblocks, the first being the lack of LPN jobs for the unexperienced.

“They tell you there are (nursing) jobs out there and there are, but they want experience. Where do you get experience if they won’t hire you if you don’t have experience?” she asked.

It was then that she took the phlebotomy training at ConnCAT and after five months at U.S. Labs she left there, like Downer, because of the long commutes and bad hours. 

Soon thereafter, hospitals decided they were only interested in hiring registered nurses with bachelor degrees, not LPNs.

“It was a really scary at that time, because you went to school, you have $30,000 in debt and now you can’t use what you just went to school for,” Tavaras said.

Tavaras found however, that she could combine her experience as a CNA with her phlebotomy license for better pay at Bridgeport Hospital, where she stayed for 2 1/2 years.

She has worked for home health agencies and now has had full-time work for the past nine months through Avenna Health, which provides caretakers for disabled children and adults. Tavaras, who uses her nursing and phlebotomy skills in this job, is now awaiting her next assignment.

Tavaras also works one night a week as the night manager at the Ronald McDonald House, because she believes in the facility’s mission, 

If she has any advice for others with nursing ambitions, it would be to enroll in a program that will result in a bachelor’s in nursing to ensure hospital work.

Tavaras said the schools and tech training for ancillary health jobs do not level with students on the limited jobs, the per diem payments and lack of benefits. 

“In some ways, they are duping people,” she said. “It is all about the money.”

Tavaras said that was not the case with ConnCAT. She never wanted to be a full-time phlebotomist, but the training there was superior and it can be a career for interested people or combined with skills, such as she did.

For experienced staff like herself, she would like to see a bridge program to registered nurse that doesn’t make students repeat courses they have already taken.

“For the most part, LPNs are not valued. We do a lot to help nurses and they keep that division. I think that is part of the problem,” Tavaras said.

The Cities Project, a collaboration between CT Mirror, Connecticut Public Radio, Hearst CT, The Hartford Courant, Republican-American of Waterbury, Hartford Business Journal, and Purple States, will publish periodic articles exploring challenges and solutions related to revitalizing Connecticut’s cities. Visit THECITIESPROJECT.NEWS

2013/14 footage in the online video that accompanies this story was produced by Purple States and is included courtesy of ConnCAT. In January 2014, Stacie’s story was included in a video series published by The New Haven Independent. And Colin McEnroe of WNPR interviewed Omar on a June 2014 show about the trajectories of black men.

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