Working her Way to the Top

A young woman stands with her arms crossed on a rainy roof deck with a spectacular view of the Empire State Building and Manhattan skyline

Jessica Leon was strolling back from a doctor’s appointment on the Upper East Side with her daughter when she saw a flyer for a job readiness program. It was 2005; Jessica was 17 and her daughter was two. She had no interest in the program, but it came with something she did want: a subway pass. 

“You attend the class, you get a MetroCard,” she recalled recently in an expansive room overlooking midtown Manhattan. “I had not a dollar to my name, so I took it for the MetroCard.” 

Leon’s life had been pretty short on lucky breaks. Abandoned by her biological mother at age two, she was placed in the foster care system and then had a troubled upbringing with her adoptive mother. At fifteen Leon was pregnant. She didn’t receive a lot of guidance from the adults in her life.  

“No one in my family ever graduated high school. No one ever had a job. No one really told me, ‘Jessica, go to college. Jessica, build a career. Jessica, do good for yourself and your daughter,’” she explained. 

The job readiness program was held at the Isaacs Center. “At Stanley M. Isaacs Center, I was taught to type and prepare for the work environment. Once I learned to type I liked it. I recall the instructor saying to me, next class, we’re going to teach you how to build a resume. And I’m like what the heck is a resume?” 

Leon had never had a job, but they put her brand-new typing skills on her resume. Then she learned how to dress for an interview and how to operate in an office environment. A while later, the Isaacs Center called to offer her a job working the front desk at their Senior Center. She knew her adoptive mother wouldn’t approve, because her benefits would be cut if Jessica earned an income. 

“I was happy but also nervous because I didn’t want to get in trouble by my mother for working,” she recalled. “But I wanted to advance my career and look into building a better future for myself and my daughter. So, I accepted.” 

From that modest toehold, she began to climb.  

Leon got her college degree—the first in her family—a couple of years after she started working at the Isaacs Center. She worked in the IT department of a big Wall Street company for several years. Then she got an offer in real estate. Now she helps keep things running like clockwork at a sleek office tower of over 860,000 square feet, with a view of the Empire State Building. Her daughter is in college. Both of their futures look bright. 

“I’ve been through a lot. I appreciate everything at this point,” she said. “What I needed from my mother or any guardian, Stanley Isaacs did it. To be told from the time you’re four years old through your teen years that you’re nothing—you start thinking you’re nothing. But the Isaacs Center believed in me. 

“And to think, it all started with a flyer for a MetroCard!” she laughs. 

The Isaacs Center’s Education and Workforce program offers free training in Culinary Arts, Community Healthcare, Information Technology, and Youth Development and Human Services. Click here for more information or email Shayla Simpson, Director of Education and Workforce, at