April Isenhour never crossed the stage at any sort of graduation. A tenth-grade dropout, she last week gave a commencement speech of a different sort:
"Every one of us has a different story, but today we all have a fresh start. We sit before you today filled with renewed hope, faith and strength. We are ready to take on the world now that we have proven to ourselves that we are truly worthy of success. Many of us started out this journey hesitant, believing that we were weak, broken and unloved. ... We sit before you today as the vision of tomorrow -- strong, capable and willing."
Isenhour, 24, was graduating not from high school or college, but from a program designed to help women achieve such milestones.
Show Up For Life is the Salvation Army's answer to a problem its women's shelter staff see often: women who rotate in and out of the shelter, unable to hold down a job or keep a roof over their heads. The six-week program requires participants to show up three days each week, no matter what. "If you had a headache, you could still go lie down afterwards. If you needed childcare, we had that," said Deronda Metz, the Salvation Army's social services director. "They needed to show up no matter what.
Part job training, part group therapy, the course has taught 55 women resume writing, job search tips and conflict resolution. Last week, Show Up For Life celebrated its first anniversary. Women from previous classes -- many who are now working and living in market-rate housing -- returned to see Isenhour and nine other women graduate.
Modeled in part on a program devised at George Mason University, the course brings in speakers from area businesses and also addresses self-esteem and personal empowerment -- something many shelter residents sorely need. "When they come here to the shelter, a lot of the women say that they're broken," said Camisha Age, the program's facilitator, who came to Salvation Army intending to teach parenting classes as a volunteer and instead ended up with a job.
A few participants have had college degrees; some have never finished high school; others have extensive work history; some have been out of the workforce for years. Women in the class share painful pasts -- including childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence and grueling disappointments -- and discuss how to keep traumas from affecting their ability to show up, cope and keep going. "It's really helpful to sit in a class and realize that there's other women going through the same thing or worse," said Isenhour. "Hearing other people have the courage to speak about their past really gives you the courage to speak up and ask questions like, well, 'How do I get through it?'"
It's a question Isenhour has asked herself a lot. Removed from a troubled home at age six, she spent her childhood bouncing around the state from foster family to foster family, group home to group home. As a teenager, she was in process of being adopted when she had a falling out with her foster parents. The adoption was never finalized.
She was getting into trouble a lot -- running away from group homes, doing drugs, missing school. One runaway attempt left her spending her 17th birthday in the Cabarrus County jail (she and another group home resident had severely dented a van when, jumping from a second-story window, they used it to break their fall). Soon after, she dropped out of school.
At age 19, she moved to Charlotte to be with her older boyfriend. He became abusive, and she became pregnant with her son Jailen, now nearly two years old. "I had to get out before I had him, so we ended up here," she said, sitting in the cafeteria of the Salvation Army's Center of Hope.
So began a cycle: She would stay at the shelter, work and save money to get out, but once out she would have trouble keeping a job.
"I was disappointed in myself because I felt like I was a bad mother, being in the shelter," she said. "I couldn't even give him a party for his birthday."
She and her son would stay with friends or at hotels, then finally wind up back at the shelter. When problems arose early in a new pregnancy, she missed a lot of work and got fired. Soon, it was time to go back to the shelter.
"I came back this time thinking I was going to use every resource here so that this time, when we leave the shelter, we won't have to come back," said Isenhour, who is five months pregnant. "Especially since I don't want another child to grow up in here."
Still, she was reluctant until a case worker told her she had to take the class. "I already knew how to do a resume, write a cover letter," she said. "I always tell people I have no problem finding a job; it's keeping them that I have problems with."
In class, however, she addressed that, deciding that her attitude was wrong about work. If she continued to pursue jobs only to pay the bills, she decided, she would eventually get frustrated and quit. Instead, she needed to work toward getting a job she would enjoy.
After trying similar job-training programs that didn't work as well, Metz and Age are impressed with the results of Show Up For Life. Now they hope to expand, and they'd like for businesses to offer internship opportunities to women in the program.
And Isenhour is looking for work to support her family while she finishes her GED and, eventually, finds a career she enjoys. She wants to save money, have a bank account and live within her means.
"I want to be able to be in a position where I can motivate my children to do things I could never do as a kid, whether sports or music. I don't want an outrageous life; I just want to be comfortable," she said. "Now I'm so eager to begin what I feel like is a new life."