#WhatWomenNeed – A Call to Action

Shriver-reportThe release of The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink on January 15—just one week after we marked the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty—accomplished what so many of us have been working toward: it elevated the conversation about women and poverty to a national level dialogue. #WhatWomenNeed was trending on social media and people were talking. In the room at the national release event, there was a palpable excitement in the air—excitement filled with the promise of opportunity. And just last night, the President of the United States put women front and center in his State of the Union address, calling for action on pay equity, minimum wage, and pregnancy discrimination. Now, it’s what we do with this opportunity that matters.

The Shriver Report provides a list of 10 Things You Can Do To Power A Woman’s Nation:

  1. Get The Shriver Report.
  2. Get smart. Build a stable foundation for your future by putting college before kids.
  3. Invest in yourself.
  4. Use your economic power.
  5. Engage men as allies.
  6. Vote.
  7. Be a 21st century boss.
  8. Finance women’s work.
  9. Mentor and motivate girls.
  10. Be an architect of change.

Be an architect of change – we love this one, and it’s exactly what Washington Area Women’s Foundation is working to achieve. Just a week after the release of The Shriver Report, we met with three of our sister women’s funds—California, Chicago, and Memphis—to better understand the opportunities for women’s funds to engage in moving a national women’s economic security agenda. We spent a day learning about the policy initiatives underway from select national experts on a range of topics—paid sick days, paid family leave, minimum wage, pay equity, job training, higher education, child care, and pregnancy discrimination—the very same topics that are discussed in the Shriver Report. In fact, the report includes polling on these issues. Does it surprise you to know that the majority of the American public (73 percent in fact) strongly favors equal pay for equal work? And there is universal support for this issue among Democrats and Republicans. One of the loudest and longest rounds of applause during the State of Union was in response to the President saying:

“Today, women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work. She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship – and you know what, a father does, too. It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode. This year, let’s all come together – Congress, the White House, and businesses from Wall Street to Main Street – to give every woman the opportunity she deserves. Because I firmly believe when women succeed, America succeeds.”

We are living in a unique time, and there’s a window of opportunity – never before has the level of conversation and support for women’s economic security been elevated in the way that we’ve seen just over the last month. Politicians, advocates, think tanks, researchers, and the American public are coalescing around a set of issues and policies that can truly make a difference in the lives of so many women in our region. Most recently, we saw the District of Columbia and Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland increase the minimum wage – a good first step, but more needs to be done.

Women’s funds are uniquely positioned to make a difference.  First, we are grantmakers supporting both programs and policy initiatives that are making real change for women and girls in our communities, and that inform our policy positions.  And, through our deep understanding of our local contexts and relationships with people and organizations on the ground, we have the power to convene, to amplify their voices, and to mobilize our local stakeholders.  And finally, we have the ability to do this state by state, community by community, in partnership with the 100 plus other women’s funds across the country and other local and national partners. In the coming months, we’ll be researching and assessing the role of Washington Area Women’s Foundation in connecting to local and national policy and communications campaigns that can make a difference in putting more women and girls on a path to prosperity.

The Shriver Report defines women on the brink as women who are living “on the economic line separating the middle class from the working poor and those people living in absolute poverty.” It is the place where one in three Americans lives paycheck to paycheck and just one incident away from financial crisis. It is the place where The Women’s Foundation has squarely focused its work for the last 15 years, and it is the place where we strive to have the most impact in the years ahead. The opportunity is now, but we want to hear from you – tell us what you think women need in order to be economically successful! Join the conversation by leaving a comment below or joining us on Facebook or Twitter.

#WhatWomenNeed should be more than a trending hashtag.  Or perhaps we need a different hashtag – #WhenWomenSucceedAmericaSucceeds. What do you think?

Nicky Goren and Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat are the president and vice president of Washington Area Women’s Foundation.

What Advice Would You Give to Your 13-Year-Old Self?

Last month, Washington Area Women’s Foundation announced that we’ve made new grants to three organizations that are developing two-generation strategies that will serve middle school girls and their mothers.

We’ve been talking and thinking a lot about middle school recently, and that got us reminiscing about those exuberant and confusing years between elementary school and high school. We asked the Foundation board, staff, donors, Grantee Partners and friends to think back to middle school and share the advice they’d give their 13-year-old selves. We may not have the ability to send anyone back in time, but maybe our lessons learned can help others – in middle school and beyond.

Many of you shared your advice on Facebook, Twitter and on one of the glass walls in our office. Here are some of our favorite words of wisdom:

13 yo advice

Thank you to all who shared your memories and thoughts! Got something to add? Leave a message in the comments below!

2014 Grants Will Help 6,000 Women & Girls

4-sq-GPFor me – as for many others – January is my “clean slate.”  No, it’s not about New Year’s resolutions.  For Washington Area Women’s Foundation, it’s a chance to celebrate the over $1 million in grants our board approved in December, and to exhale and plan for the work all of these Grantee Partners will be leading in our community this year.

This year’s Grantee Partners are employing a variety of strategies to help increase the economic security of women and girls in the Washington region.

  • Our workforce development Grantee Partners are providing a range of services along a continuum: adult basic education, post-secondary education and training, occupational credentials, job training programs, job placement, retention and advancement strategies. Grantee Partners are also continuing to provide intensive case management and supportive services that are critical to the success of low-income women.  And they’re targeting jobs that are high-demand and high-wage, with opportunities for advancement.
  • Our asset building Grantee Partners are working to help women build their collective income and assets.  They’re helping women access the Earned Income Tax Credit, learn the basics of credit, savings, and how to budget, and build assets through homeownership and matched savings accounts.
  • Our early care and education Grantee Partners are increasing the quality and capacity of, and access to, early care and education in the Washington region.  Grantee Partners are providing professional development, training and coaching for early care and education professionals (family child care providers, child care center staff, and pre-k teachers), to improve the quality of care available for low-income children ages 0 to 5.  They’re also mobilizing important advocacy efforts, to preserve and grow investments in early care and education – so that low-income children will be prepared for kindergarten, and parents can access this important work support.

Last – but not least!! – we’re very excited to have three new Grantee Partners, working to develop two-generation strategies that will serve middle school girls and their mothers.  You can brush up on our issue brief here for more on the thinking behind this work.  We’ll keep you updated as this new work in our community unfolds.  Until then, check out all the great work we’re supporting in 2014:

Academy of Hope
To support low-income women in Washington, DC with adult basic education, as well as connections and preparation for post-secondary education or advanced career/vocational training.  Funding will also support the launch of Academy of Hope Public Charter School as a resource for adult learners in the District.

AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation
To support AppleTree Institute’s increased communications and advocacy efforts in Washington, DC, aimed at defining quality early education in terms of child outcomes that result in school readiness.

Capital Area Asset Builders
To support financial education and coaching for low-income women referred through partner nonprofit programs.  A cohort of these women will also have access to Individual Development Accounts (IDAs), to provide matched savings opportunities.

CASA de Maryland
To support the Women’s Workforce Initiative, which increases economic outcomes among low-income, immigrant women through industry-recognized vocational training, work readiness supports, job placement assistance, and other support services.

CentroNia
To support the CentroNía Institute’s work linking bilingual coaches with Early Head Start/Head Start teachers, center-based teachers, and parents to develop and implement evidence-based strategies for child development, language development, and second language acquisition at home and in the early childhood classroom.

College Success Foundation – District of Columbia*
To support planning for two-generation work that serves middle school aged girls and their mothers or female caregivers.

Community Tax Aid
To help low-income women increase assets by reducing tax liabilities and receiving tax credits for which they qualify, and by avoiding tax penalties, high fee preparation services and predatory products.

DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative*
To support planning for two-generation work that serves middle school aged girls and their mothers or female caregivers.

Doorways for Women and Families
To support the intensive Financial Independence Track (FIT) for women experiencing homelessness and/or domestic violence who live in shelters or transition-in-place housing programs. The program includes one-on-one financial education and employment counseling.

Fairfax Futures
To support the Neighborhood School Readiness Project, a community model that links early care and education stakeholders to elementary school administrators and teachers. The project includes outreach to families to increase awareness and activities that support school readiness and one-to-one mentoring for family child care providers implementing curriculum.

Goodwill of Greater Washington
To support job training and placement services for low-income women in the region, with a focus on hospitality and security/protective services.

Latino Economic Development Center
To support the financial capability initiative, which will provide coaching and financial tools to low-income women.

Mission: Readiness
To support a “grasstops” media, public, and policymaker education campaign to expand early learning opportunities for children in the Washington region, with particular emphasis on Northern Virginia.

Montgomery College Foundation
To support training, coaching and job opportunities within the Apartment Industry and commercial driving industries for low-income Montgomery County women.

National Black Child Development Institute
To support T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood DC, a nationally-recognized, research-based program that improves the quality of teachers serving children birth through age five, while also supporting systemic change in the early care and education system.

Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington
To support the Capital Area Foreclosure Network, a joint initiative with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, that supports housing counseling agencies in the region.

Northern Virginia Community College Educational Foundation*
To support the educational attainment of low-income women in Northern Virginia, including both early care providers and mothers of young children, through the Early Childhood Education Initiative.

 Northern Virginia Family Service
To support the Training Futures program, which will help low-income women complete education and training, and secure entry-level office or health care jobs.

Prince George’s Child Resource Center
To support Joining Voices, an advocacy project for Prince George’s County that empowers parents and child care providers to articulate the importance of quality child care for family stability, school readiness and economic growth.

Prince George’s Community College Foundation
To support the Women of Wisdom program, which will provide coaching and supportive services to low-income women at the college pursuing a degree or occupational credential.

So Others Might Eat (SOME)
To support the Center for Employment Training, which will prepare low-income women for careers in the health care and building maintenance industries by providing job training, basic education, career development assistance and supportive services.

The Training Source
To support Hospitality Express 4 Success, a partnership of The Training Source, Prince George’s Community College, and the Community Services Agency of the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO, to offer training, education, job placement and retention services focused on the hospitality sector for a cohort of low-income 18-26 year old women in Prince George’s County.

Voices for Virginia’s Children
To support efforts to promote public policies and investments that ensure all children in Northern Virginia, particularly those who are disadvantaged, enter kindergarten ready to succeed.

YWCA of the National Capital Area
To support planning for two-generation work that serves middle school aged girls and their mothers or female caregivers.

Year Up National Capital Region
To support young women, ages 18-24, with education and workforce development training, including up to 18 college credits, job skills development, and a six-month internship.

Urban Alliance Foundation
To support young women in the High School Internship Program, which provides work experience, mentoring and life skills training, and is the only year-long employment program for high school seniors in Washington, DC.

* First-time Grantee Partner

Lauren is a program officer at The Women’s Foundation.

Did Anyone Even Know That a War Was Being Waged?

LBJ-war-on-povertyAs I listened to NPR’s piece this morning on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, I was struck by the fact that very little has changed. I decided to read President Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous address to Congress. That internet search led me to the March 1964 Special Message to Congress that accompanied President Johnson’s proposed Economic Opportunity Act of 1964—I strongly encourage anyone who hasn’t read it, to take a moment and do so. The message lays out the fundamentals for the creation of what are now today’s safety net programs, programs that are slowly being dismantled.

In the Special Message to Congress, President Johnson said, “There are millions of Americans—one fifth of our people—who have not shared in the abundance which has been granted to most of us, and on whom the gates of opportunity have been closed. What does this poverty mean to those who endure it? It means a daily struggle to secure the necessities for even a meager existence. It means that the abundance, the comforts, the opportunities they see all around them are beyond their grasp.”

Fifty years later and there are still millions of people across the country struggling to make ends meet. In the Washington metropolitan region alone, more than 200,000 women and girls are living in poverty. Just last month, the Washington Post profiled the day-to-day struggle of a woman and her family living in DC, a painstaking reminder that the war has not been won. Did anyone even know that a war was being waged?

President Johnson continued, “The war on poverty is not a struggle simply to support people, to make them dependent on the generosity of others. It is a struggle to give people a chance. It is an effort to allow them to develop and use their capacities, as we have been allowed to develop and use ours, so that they can share, as others share in the promise of this nation. We do this, first of all, because it is right that we should.”

Truer words have never been spoken. I was reminded of this last fall when Sharon Williams so poignantly addressed the audience at our annual Leadership Luncheon. She talked about life happening to her and the despair she felt until she found an opportunity: “I began to believe within myself that if given the opportunity—people living in less than ideal conditions and having less than ideal situations could and would do great things.”

All Sharon needed was an opportunity. As we embark upon a new year, let’s not waste the opportunities before us. Let’s not have this same conversation 50 years from now.

As President Johnson said, “Today… we have the power to strike away the barriers to full participation in our society. Having the power, we have the duty. The Congress is charged by the Constitution to ‘provide…for the general welfare of the United States….’ Now Congress is being asked to extend that welfare to all our people.”

Fifty years later, the message is the same: the time to act is now. Ending poverty could become a reality, but it will take all of us working together. May this be our nation’s New Year’s resolution for 2014.

Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat is vice president of Washington Area Women’s Foundation.

The Year in Review: Top Legislation Impacting Women in 2013

It seems that women have been the center of many policy debates this year, both nationally and locally. We’ve been keeping an eye on important legislation affecting women and their families in 2013 and have put together a list of the top bills, policies and legislation of the year, plus a few to keep tabs on in 2014:

1. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) cuts:

In November of this year, automatic cuts to SNAP took effect as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) expired. The cuts amounted to $29 a month for a family of three and reduced SNAP benefits to an average of less than $1.40 per person per meal in 2014.

Keep an eye on this in 2014: Additional cuts could be coming in 2014. Cuts to SNAP are included in the Farm Bill, but the number varies depending on version. Though the conference committee tasked with reconciling the House and Senate versions of the bill won’t have an agreement by the end of 2013, it is likely the bill will pass in some form in early 2014.

2. Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013:

This bill was signed into law in March and expands protections for victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault. Among other things, it helps create a national prevention hotline, funds shelters, facilitates the prosecution of perpetrators, provides a temporary visa and pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants who are the victims of domestic abuse and greatly expands the housing rights of domestic violence survivors.

3. Raising the minimum wage to $11.50/hr in DC, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County:

Just in time to make our 2013 roundup, these three local governments all passed bills to raise the minimum wage in their respective jurisdictions. This is a huge step and very important for our region, but as the Foundation’s President Nicky Goren wrote in her Huffington Post article earlier this month, this increase is just a start. Still, there has been a lot of activism around raising the minimum wage lately, including President Obama supporting a bill to raise the federal minimum wage. We’ll be watching this issue in the new year.

4. Long-term unemployment insurance runs out December 28:

Recent statistics show that women are roughly 45% of the long-term unemployed. Right now, the length of time a person can collect unemployment benefits varies significantly by state, but it can be as long as 73 weeks in some places. Come December 28, 2013, 26 weeks will be the maximum length a person will be able to collect the benefit. At that time, anyone who has been on unemployment longer than 26 weeks will be completely cut-off (that number will likely be 1.3 million Americans). The Urban Institute has created a great resource for learning more about this important issue, here.

5. Sequester and Shutdown:

2013 saw both The Sequester and The Shutdown, with the Washington region being heavily impacted by both. The Sequester caused cuts to social services, furloughs for government workers, and serious hits to the Head Start program. The Shutdown nearly crippled the Head Start program altogether in November and caused many local non-profits and families to struggle as they went without funding and paychecks for 16 days. Sequestration has been devastating for housing assistance programs, causing significant shortfalls in housing vouchers for low-income families.

6. Affordable Care Act came online:

Though the rollout has had its issues, the Affordable Care Act officially came online this past year, and the implications for women and their families are huge. Already, almost 1.5 million people have enrolled in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program according to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. All the women and children included in that figure will get free preventative care such as mammograms, screenings for cervical cancer and other services, along with coverage for other medical issues at reasonable prices and no co-pay for most birth control.

To watch in the coming year:

1. Immigration Reform:

This bill didn’t make it through Congress this year, but the implications of comprehensive immigration reform for families could be huge. It is estimated that there are between 11 and 20 million undocumented immigrants in America, many of them living away from families for years or decades. Many undocumented immigrants forgo public assistance they could legally obtain for fear they will be deported. There is a lot of momentum for this bill, and we’ll be watching what happens in 2014.

2. Strong Start for America’s Children Act:

On November 13, the Strong Start for America’s Children Act was introduced in the House and Senate. This legislation would provide universal access to high-quality pre-kindergarten for low-income children and expand child care for infants and toddlers through a federal-state partnership.  This bill has bipartisan support and would be a huge early care and education win if it passes. A summary on the bill from the National Women’s Law Center is here.

 3. The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (the FAMILY Act):

This bill was introduced in December of this year. While the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (widely known as FMLA) currently requires employers to provide leave for qualified medical and family reasons, it only requires unpaid leave. The new bill that has been introduced would provide federal family leave insurance that would provide workers with up to 12 weeks of partial income for qualified leave. This is certainly something that could be a huge boost for women and their families, and we’ll be watching it closely in 2014.

Was this review helpful? Did we miss something? Let us know in the comments section!

The Year in Review: Top Blog Posts for 2013

Where has the year gone?! We can barely believe that 2014 is just around the corner, and though we’re already looking forward to the great things the future holds for Washington Area Women’s Foundation, we’d be remiss if we didn’t take this chance to look back at the incredible year we’ve had in 2013. We launched a new two generation grantmaking strategy for middle school girls and their mothers, saw incredible success stories from our grantee partners, blew past our annual Leadership Luncheon fundraising goal and much more! We chronicled these and more on our blog, and have rounded up some of our favorite blog posts from 2013:

1. New Grantmaking for Girls: A Two Generation Strategy: Foundation President Nicky Goren announced exciting new funding for innovative programs that work with both middle school aged girls and their mothers or female caregivers to establish economic security across generations.

2, 3, and 4. The March on Washington: In Marching Great Distances: My Family’s Past and Future, and the March on Washington, We March On: Diversity, Unity & the March on Washington, and “I Still Have a Dream:” 50 Years Later, March on Washington Remains Relevant our staff provide diverse perspectives on their experience marching with the Foundation and commemorating the 50th anniversary of The March on Washington.

5. Leaning in isn’t an option for all women: In March, Sheryl Sandberg made quite a splash with her book “Lean In,” in which she advises women to assert themselves in the workplace and beyond. On our blog, we looked at the complexity of “leaning in” for low-income women dealing with many other mitigating factors.

6. Sharon Williams Luncheon Remarks: On October 23, Sharon Williams spoke at The Women’s Foundation’s 2013 Leadership Luncheon. Her remarks inspired those in attendance and were posted on our blog shortly after the luncheon. After speaking, Sharon received a Visionary Award for her commitment to improving the lives of women and their families.

7. Why can the restaurant industry be so difficult for women? Spoiler alert: Top Chef Masters got it wrong: In this post, Jessica Zetzman responds to remarks made on Top Chef Masters to Chef Jennifer Jasinski and shares the real reason the restaurant industry is tough for women.

8. Miss Utah Equal Pay Flub Should Be a Call to Action: Following the media buzz after Miss Utah’s flubbed response at the Miss USA Pageant to a question about pay inequity and women’s rights, Foundation President Nicky Goren reflects on the incident’s indication of the lackluster state of the women’s rights movement.

9. No Joke: The Impact of the Sequester is Devastating Vulnerable Families: In June, we looked at the ways the sequester was affecting families in our region and across the US.

10. Changing GED Could Mean Greater Barriers for Area Women: Following an informative panel put together by grantee partner Academy of Hope, we looked at the upcoming changes to the GED slated to take effect this coming January and how they will impact women in our region.

What Do You Look for in an Ideal Workplace?

Why-I-love-my-job-PhotoI’m sure everyone has their own perspective on what would constitute their ideal workplace, but for me, I have learned that I need to be wholly aligned with the vision and mission of the organization I work for; that I need to feel that the organization is contributing to “the greater good;” that I am happiest when I get along well with my colleagues and feel respected for my professional contribution; when I work in an environment that promotes a healthy work/life balance; and that I desire a workplace that values and supports professional development.

When I came to work at Washington Area Women’s Foundation three months ago, I had a pretty good feeling that those attributes wouldn’t be hard to find here. From my first interview it was easy to see that this is an office brimming with excitement; it doesn’t take long to realize that the people who work here do so because they’re seriously passionate about economically empowering the women and girls of our region. What I couldn’t have expected was how my list of ideal workplace attributes would be made to feel puny compared to the awesomeness of working at The Women’s Foundation. That may sound hyperbolic, but let me explain.

I have always been passionate about working with women, and coming from a business background, I see economic security as a huge component of a woman’s overall ability to thrive. The Women’s Foundation celebrated its 15th anniversary this year at our annual Leadership Luncheon, and I am so glad that I was able to be a part of it. Hearing about the incredible work of the foundation, listening to our speaker Sharon’s remarks on how the Foundation had impacted her and witnessing the incredible outpouring of support from our community – helping us blow past our $700,000 fundraising goal – reiterated to me how The Women’s Foundation is not just contributing to an abstract idea of “the greater good,” but is pushing for tangible and systematic change that will ultimately positively impact us all.

Valuing a workplace where I can get along with my coworkers and feel supported in my professional career, I was excited to see The Women’s Foundation’s commitment to this ideal when I witnessed a coworker express interest in additional responsibilities outside of her current job. The Foundation fostered that interest, committed to training her and ultimately celebrated her accomplishments by promoting her to a role that encompassed those new skills.

Seeing the progression of my coworker was so heartening, but I never could have imagined that the women I work with would not only guide and mentor me professionally, but they would also become champions of my personal successes. In my first three months with the Foundation, my (then) fiancé and I finalized the purchase of our first home and got married at the wedding of our dreams (yeah, it’s been a good year). I felt lucky that The Women’s Foundation was flexible in allowing me time off for all the little things that go into the home-buying process, along with pre-approving leave for my wedding and honeymoon. But I was blown away when I came back from closing on our condo to an office-wide celebration. All of my co-workers, who had known me less than a month at this point, said they wanted to celebrate this life milestone with me and promote our asset-building act of purchasing a home. I couldn’t believe it! That set the precedent, but somehow I was still unprepared for their incredible generosity this past week when I got married. My wonderful coworkers threw me a surprise wedding celebration, sneakily invited my husband, and showered us both with their love and well-wishes for our new life together. I am still reeling! I have never worked in an environment that so celebrated and promoted their employees in every aspect, and I feel incredibly blessed.

It might seem strange to wax so poetically about one’s place of employment – especially on said place of employment’s blog – but the reason I wanted to share this today is because this is the type of job The Women’s Foundation believes every woman should hold, and every single day we work to make that a reality. The Foundation’s clamor for paid sick leave, flexible schedules, better working conditions and jobs that pay a living wage; the push for pathways to career advancement through professional development; and the commitment of everyone at The Foundation to philanthropy, sharing kindness and celebrating personal successes –  this work we do at the Foundation is a natural outpouring because all of this is so engrained in our own organizational culture. I’m lucky to work here, but I hope that because I do, every woman in our region will have the ability to write a blog post exactly like this.

If this sounds like the type of place you’d like to work, check out our job openings page to find out how you can join our team! 

Sharon Williams Luncheon Remarks

Sharon-SpeakingOn October 23, Sharon Williams spoke at The Women’s Foundation’s 2013 Leadership Luncheon. The following are her remarks. After speaking, Sharon received a Visionary Award for her commitment to improving the lives of women and their families. Please click here to learn more about the Visionary Awards and click here to see a video featuring Sharon and her story.

Good afternoon everyone- It is kind of strange seeing myself up there on the big screen.  As I listen to myself talk – it really does remind me of how much my life has changed. You saw a little of my story in the video, and I’d like to share a bit more with you now.

Upwards of 10 years ago, my life was very different. I spent a lot time asking God, “Why me?”

I was in high school – 10th grade to be exact when I had my first child. I’m not sure if I was afraid – but I can tell you that I was more determined than ever to be and make a difference for my child. Part of that difference was getting married – which I did at 17.  By the time I was 21 years old, I had two children, my own successful daycare business, three vehicles and I purchased my first home – with a white picket fence. I decided that having a daycare was the best thing because I wanted to spend time with my children and everything that I did was for them.

That all sounds nice, but my personal situation was not good, but as I look back on it now I still feel like I made the right decisions especially with the cards that I had been dealt.

And then – life happened.   I got divorced. I closed my business – moved out of my home into an apartment– shared custody of my children and I felt cheated. I began to ask God, “Why me? I’ve done my best – I’ve tried so hard to be a better person and now look!”

I was getting frustrated with life itself and something within me stirred up like a fire and once again – I wanted to make this situation better for my children.

I began taking classes at Prince George’s Community College.   I learned about the Next Step Training and Education Program and I wanted to try it out.

This was one of the best decisions that I could have made.  The Next Step program not only assisted me with tuition but I was also given additional supportive services and tools to aid in my future success.  One of the most rewarding on the most rewarding gift that I took away from the program is a lifelong mentor in Cecelia Knox, the program’s director.

Once I was accepted into the nursing program I was ecstatic!  You would have thought that I hit the Powerball ten times over – and I don’t even play the lottery!

I want you to understand how huge it was for me to go back to school. College was never a goal for me. So you can imagine how shocked I was not only to be back in school… not only to be passing all of my classes… but getting a 4.0 GPA!

I must say to you all – and especially Cecelia – I am so grateful that the Next Step program was in place to assist me when life happened. What do I mean by “life happening?” What I mean is this: When circumstances place you in situations beyond your immediate control. No two situations are the same, and I know everyone in this room can relate to that.

Next Step put me back in control. You see life wasn’t just happening to me but it was I that decided what life would be.

For me, that meant becoming a registered nurse at MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center. It meant an opportunity to provide my children with more stability and security.  It meant taking advantage of opportunities to travel the world – and I have.

I received a full scholarship to Notre Dame of MD University to complete my Bachelor’s Degree.  I traveled to Australia and South Africa – learning about their health care systems and volunteering with TB clinics and HIV orphanages.  I visited Nelson Mandela’s prison cell – I walked in his garden – I strolled in the limestone quarry – just like he did.

But what made a most lasting effect on me was my visit to a nursing home – because that’s where I met Mrs. Christian.  She was a proud elderly South African woman who grew up in the brutality of apartheid.

I sat at her feet as she told our group about seeing the horrors of families being ripped apart and how she stood on the front line with the activists in fight to end to apartheid. Although her comments were towards the group as a whole – she looked into my eyes as she spoke – and I found myself once again asking God, “Why me?”

“I have fought for you to be free,” she said. “And you are under obligation to take advantage of the education available to you and use it to better yourself, your family and your community!”

And she told me – me – that she was proud of me and in that moment my priorities in life changed and my thinking changed and I made a conscious effort to see greatness in others.

I began to believe within myself that if given the opportunity – people living in less than ideal conditions and having less than ideal situations could and would do great things – and  honestly my friends – that is the belief that NSTEP had in me.

As a Registered Nurse I have helped a lot of people old and young alike and I have found babies to be the most interesting species of them all.

Some of them come out kicking and screaming and ready to run for the world and others are born not so active.  They need extra attention – maybe some oxygen and a sternal rub in order to get them to breathe – to get their arms flailing and their legs kicking so they too can be ready to run for the world.

It’s that way for adults sometimes too –  Some are fortunate enough to have had a background and upbringing that allowed them to take off running – while Others need that sternal rub so to speak to help us breath again and give us the strength to stand up and take off for the world as it were –  And when we do – it’s a beautiful thing.

It’s been about two years now since my trip to South Africa and I have worked hard to help others. I know that I have encouraged and inspired others to go back to school.   I often have the privilege of returning to Prince George’s Community College to speaking with women in orientation for the Next Step program and I listen to their stories – I listen to their hopes and dreams without judgment – because I remember being in their seat.

Today, I work roughly 10 miles from where I grew up. Knowing my history – knowing where I come from and where I am now has caused me to ask at times:  Am I one in a million? A needle in a haystack – No.   There are many success stories emerging from the streets of S.E. Washington, DC just like mine.  How? Because we have been given an opportunity and found someone to believe in us more than we believed in ourselves and for me – that was Cecelia Knox and Ms. Myrtle Christian.

Today, my conversations with God are very different. I say a humbled thank you for my 22-year-old son who is my pride and joy – for my 20-year-old daughter who completed high school at 15 years old and is now is studying to become a child psychologist… and for my 11-year-old daughter who is smart and so talented and plays the violin exceptionally well!

Today, I say thank you to God for the courage to keep my head up despite adversity and for allowing me to become an example for those who have the potential to succeed although they may not even realize it – yet.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to be with you fine people today and have you hear my story.  I am grateful that The Women’s Foundation invests in places like Prince George’s Community College – a place that has assisted me in my present and future successes – and hopefully I have been able to show you that what appears to be impossible is possible.

Today, I place you all under obligation to take advantage of what is before you and join me in making our community better than it was yesterday.

Thank you.