We are Cara Collective

Dedicated to developing employment pathways
and individual and community success

About Us

We believe that there is an incredible and untapped talent pool in our country one comprised of people often experiencing homelessness and poverty. Our job is to unlock the strengths they already have and showcase them anew to the world. Here’s how we do it.


We don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all method. Together we build on your unique strengths and find the best pathway to employment based on your experience, situation, and aspiration.


In the classroom, we work with our participants to shift their perspectives on what’s possible for the future. And in our partnerships with employers, we guide them to new and untapped talent. 


Through education, encouragement, and access to resources, we help participants increase their employability, and employers advance toward equity and inclusion.

Our Mission

Build an inclusive economy by developing employment pathways to advance transformative individual and community success.

Our Vision

Fuel a courageous national movement to eradicate relational and financial poverty.

Our Racial Equity Statement

Racism and white supremacy culture are pervasive in society and influence us all. To ensure that we are centering our work around the individuals and communities we serve, Cara Collective commits to taking an antiracist approach in all we do: in our program design, representation in our staff, partnerships we choose to enter, and our external and internal communications and policies. We leverage our individuality and differences as a way of deepening community and expanding opportunity in and around our organization.


Providing a pathway out of poverty for motivated job seekers through personal and professional training, job placement, and supportive resources.


Creating transitional jobs and providing communities with litter abatement, graffiti removal, power washing, and landscaping services.

Cara Connects

Sourcing quality job candidates to fill critical entry-level and temporary positions at leading Chicago-area companies.

Cara Plus

Engaging organizations and employers to grow diverse, inclusive workforce practices so everyone has access to quality employment.

Our Story

The Cara Program Founded

Cara is founded in 1991 as “The Cara Program” by entrepreneur and philanthropist Tom Owens, who had traveled extensively contributing to global projects aimed at helping people living in poverty. Upon returning home, Tom realized there was work to be done in his own backyard and soon dedicated himself to reducing poverty in Chicago by connecting quality jobs with the people who needed them. In its early days, Cara’s office was Tom’s car as he traveled from shelter to shelter preparing and coaching people for interviews and referring them to open positions in firms where he had business connections.

Our First Location

Cara finds our first home when we embed in Old St. Patrick’s Church in downtown Chicago. It is in the basement of a then convent that much of Cara’s core curriculum—and our signature morning Motivations—came to fruition.

Finding (and Keeping) a Job

Retention services are first offered to ensure success in long-term employment. Today, more than a third of Cara’s active participant population are in retention services and 70% of our permanent job placements achieve one year on the job.

Transforming Communities

We launch our first social enterprise, Cleanslate, with our first crew in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood. Through this move, Cara is able to create our own employment opportunities for the population we serve. Today, Cleanslate creates hundreds of jobs each year and is beautifying more than four dozen communities in Chicago and beyond.

Reaching New Communities

We open a second micro-campus in the Bronzeville community – dubbed our South Side Campus. This space is more of a drop-in for members of the quad communities who may not be enrolled in our traditional training, but they still need access to employment services, resource support, a computer lab, and trainings in things like financial and digital literacy, tax preparation, and more. Today, the SSC operates out of the historic Rosenwald Courts.

Our Permanent Home

We purchase the now Thomas and Mary Owens Center, a 30,000 square-foot training facility located right down the street from our humble beginnings. This move gives us the space and security needed to ensure we can continue to scale our services to job seekers. 

Connecting Quality Talent

We launch our second social enterprise, Cara Connects, a mission-driven staffing firm. Within two short years, Cara Connects wins the Social Innovator of the Year Award at the Chicago Innovation Awards. Today, Cara Connects places our participants into hundreds of short- and long-term employment positions with leading Chicago companies each year.

Taking Cara to New Markets

Lutheran Social Services of Indiana (LSSI) came to us with a question – how can we take what is happening within the four walls of Cara in Chicago and bring it to their organization in Ft. Wayne, Indiana? Together, we co-created a workforce development program, LSSI Works, steeped in our methodology, and with that, our first Cara affiliate was born.

Building a National Network

With the launch of our second affiliate, Atlanta Mission @Work, we also launch Cara Plus, the expansion arm of Cara. Through trainings, partnerships, and Cara Institute, the Cara Plus team works with employers and organizations to grow, deploy, and strengthen viable workforce solutions in communities all across the country.

30 Years of Transforming Lives

We mark 30 years since Tom Owens first set out on this mission. To help mark the occasion, we introduced a reframe of our enterprise to Cara Collective, to better tell the story of our four entities – Cara, Cleanslate, Cara Connects, and Cara Plus – and how they work toward our vision to eradicate poverty.

  • “Cara has been a blessing, not only to me, but to the people in my community.”
    – Freddie, Cara Alum

Our Impact

See how Cara Collective measures success and sees the social return on investment by the purpose-driven work we do every day.


Our Team

We know we can all go further when we go together. Meet the team that keeps Cara Collective moving forward and accomplishing our goals.


Our Community

Everyone needs a little motivation to help them reach their goals. That’s why we’ve made this part of our process. Find out more about how we share inspiration every morning.


Official Partners

Get Involved


Please consider a gift to this mission, and help bring people back to hope, jobs, and opportunity.

More Ways to Give

Discover more ways to support our mission and help set our Cara participants up for success.

Contact Us

Have a question or want to learn more about Cara Collective? We’ll help point you in the right direction.