By Juila Calagiovanni The Sacramento Bee.
They stand up straight. They know how to type quickly and ace an interview. Some have secured jobs and live in their own apartments.
But the 24 formerly homeless women who graduated from Sacramento's Women's Empowerment program Friday morning have gained more than job skills. Over the past eight weeks, they said the educational program has helped them rediscover their self-confidence.
At the ceremony at the program's complex north of downtown, the graduates gathered with their family, friends and supporters to celebrate the milestone. As their names were called, each graduate placed a red rose on the program's "altar" and donned a sparkling magenta scarf.
Graduates also shared poems and music, and spoke about their experience in the program. They explained that they had grappled with addiction, domestic violence and mental health issues. Others had found that their employment opportunities were limited by their criminal records.
This spring, each of the women had committed to the intensive eight-week Women's Empowerment program. They spent days building their job-readiness skills, attending support groups and meeting with mentors and staff.
"I've never really had my own stable living," said Kenya McFalls, 26, one of the graduates. For a time, she lived in hotels with her daughter, Alazcia, 7. McFalls realized that she wanted to "make the right steps to move forward." They found housing, but McFalls still struggled to find employment. She was referred to Women's Empowerment and began her journey in April.
Lois Aldridge, 75, served as McFalls' mentor. Aldridge has been volunteering with Women's Empowerment for more than a decade.
"If they have a problem they can't seem to solve, they can bring it to me," she said.
When one homeless participant's tent burned, destroying all of her clothes and belongings, Aldridge brought her to Goodwill to rebuild her wardrobe.
Program participants tell Aldridge they've lost their self-esteem.
"Where'd you lose it, then?" Aldridge asked. "Let's see if we can find it."
Kate Towson, 28, is Women's Empowerment's development director. The staff also includes social workers and career specialists, and trained educators staff the on-site day care.
The program stresses core classes, including job training and computer literacy. Towson said the program gives women a powerful sense of belonging.
"Homelessness is so isolating," she said. "There's nothing more heartbreaking than someone feeling like they don't have a community."
McFalls said she considers her peers in Women's Empowerment to be like sisters. She encouraged other women in similar situations to enroll in the program.
"It gives all women an opportunity," she said. "Don't think that because you're homeless, you can't make it."