Meet Us Monday: Sydney, Quick Start to Employment Manager

Up next in our staff “Meet Us Monday” is Sydney Smith — a vital employee with the REAL LIFE team! 

Sydney serves as our Quick Start to Employment Program Manager and has been a part of the team for almost two years. Her focus at REAL LIFE is to “help Lifers gain and maintain employment.” Sydney’s role is critical because employment for our Lifers is vital to their journey, as it provides a sense of purpose and financial stability, and is also an essential part of one’s recovery.

After interning for REAL LIFE in 2019 while finishing her Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice at Virginia Commonwealth University Sydney joined the team full-time. Before REAL LIFE, Sydney worked at Brandermill Woods, a local retirement community for just shy of 10 years as the assistant dining room manager. In this previous role, Sydney said that she gained a unique perspective when it came to employment, as she was responsible for helping manage and hire new staff. It was in that role that she gained the knowledge of what makes a model employee, which has since helped her in her current role. 

When Sydney came to REAL LIFE, she was initially hired to manage the Quick Start to Construction Program,  a 4-week training course for Lifers. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sydney’s role shifted as the Quick Start to Construction courses had to take a hiatus. At present, Sydney manages the new Quick Start to Employment Program at REAL LIFE, in which she fulfills many roles.

As Sydney’s work shifted over time, she had to think fast and develop a role where she could assist Lifers during such a complicated time for gaining employment amidst the pandemic. She meets with clients after they have resided in a REAL LIFE house for about a week, where Sydney then guides them through the employment search process. From resume-building, strengths assessments, job applications, interview preparation, to help them to secure a job, Sydney thrives in her position and helps many Lifers. Sydney also created a “How to Start Your Own Business” skills course that started in December for Lifers who want to eventually become entrepreneurs. 

In her time as the Quick Start to Employment Manager, Sydney has done incredible work. To date, she has assisted 130 Lifers, of whom 101 were eligible for employment. Among those 101, she has successfully placed 91! 

Sydney has developed this position to become a critical piece of the inner-workings of REAL LIFE and is usually able to help Lifers secure employment within 3-5 weeks after they enter the program.

In addition to working with Lifers, she forms partnerships with companies and other non-profit organizations in the Richmond area that may recruit Lifers for employment. Sydney explained that this is often the most challenging of her responsibilities as the job market is flawed in prohibiting people with criminal records from attaining and sustaining jobs. At times, it can be difficult to get a new employer to take a chance on a Lifer, particularly one with a prior criminal background. Furthermore, a challenge arises when searching for jobs that are right along the Richmond City bus line. Many Lifers do not have their own transportation, therefore this precludes many job opportunities for them. 

Outside of her work at REAL LIFE, she loves listening to country music and going to country concerts every summer. Sydney also loves to travel; in fact, she’s been to England twice and to Ireland once. She’s hoping when COVID-19 travel restrictions lift she’s able to get back out and see the world!

Sydney has created so many opportunities for Lifers. She says she strives to help this population who is almost always overlooked. When asked further, it reminded her of a quote, “this population is kind of like the landscape on the side of the road – you don’t really notice it you just drive by it,” but they are just people, who are worthy of obtaining stable and meaningful employment just as the rest of us.

“Instead of dwelling on the no’s, we work harder to find the yes’s,” Sydney says as a piece of advice to anyone looking to get into this field. 

If you need to get in touch with Sydney Smith, her email is