Learning the landscape maintenance trade is not just a way out of homelessness for Michelle Van Dyke. "Working in soil is like cleaning up the wreck of my past," she said. "When I'm weeding, I go down to the root. All the way down to the root."
For Tajuana Martin, training for an outdoor job trumps food service or desk work. And on one recent morning, Sophia Moreno donned a pair of plastic safety goggles, picked up a gas-powered weed trimmer for the very first time and cautiously started to edge her way around the back lawn at Women's Empowerment, taking care not to kick up pebbles in the process.
Class is in session at the A Street center north of downtown Sacramento, where Women's Empowerment staff and volunteers help prepare homeless women for the job market. The nonprofit launched the landscaping maintenance program earlier this year and Martin was the first to sign on.
"I absolutely love playing in the dirt. I have boys. That's what we do," said Martin, who first worked in a garden as a child in St. Louis. "(Vocational rehabilitation specialist) Sandra (Hamameh) came in and said, 'I'm thinking about starting a new program: landscaping.' My ears just perked up."
Women's Empowerment provides child care, counseling, mentoring and a host of other services to help recently homeless clients get their lives back on track. An eight-week general job-readiness program is the cornerstone of the center's offerings. Graduates can then enroll in the center's specialized training in fields such as customer service or operating a vehicle (in conjunction with Paratransit Inc.).
Hamameh proposed adding landscape maintenance to the offerings when Women's Empowerment was preparing to relocate at the beginning of this year. The new offices are set on a sizable chunk of land, with some 10,000 square feet of lawn in back, several choice spots for planting vegetable or flower beds and plenty of planters in the courtyard and around the buildings' exterior.
"We were now in a position where we could look at other employment options using our own property or facility," Hamameh explained. She talked to several graduates about hands-on training, received an enthusiastic response and began researching employment opportunities to make sure the new direction was a viable one.
"We found that the outlook for landscape technicians and landscape in general was very positive," she said. "We typically think of it as a male-dominated industry, but women are actually making a lot of inroads in the landscape industry."
Van Dyke, Martin and the other students have spent three days a week in training since mid-March. The three-hour classes are a mix of lessons on topics such as pruning, plant identification and chemical applications, and hands-on yard work and design. Cheri Enos, who owns a landscape maintenance business in Davis and whose own mom is a Women's Empowerment graduate taught several classes. Burnie Lenau of Lawnman Inc. works outdoors with the students once or twice a week and plans to hire some of its graduates.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Lenau brought his head supervisor, Octavio Nuño, to show the women how to use gas-powered lawn mowers and weed trimmers.
Martin, in her wide-brimmed straw hat and pink gardening gloves, was making tracks. Lenau watched from the sidelines as Martin carefully pushed the mower through the clover-dotted grass. "She's good, but she needs to be faster. She's leaving dog ears," said Lenau, referring to small patches of uncut grass at the end of Martin's rows. "People think anyone can push a lawn mower. It's a little tougher than that."
Lenau has owned Lawnman Inc. for 21 years and employs 35. He knows Martin is serious about a job. His role is to set clear expectations and to pack as much instruction into a few hours as possible. "It's an opportunity to help people take care of themselves so they're fishing for themselves vs. throwing them a fish every other day," he said.
Martin pushes the mower for nearly an hour, finally pausing by the mounting pile of clippings for a drink of water. She lives with her husband and a son at the Salvation Army's transitional housing center near Watt and Edison avenues. She is eager to work outdoors and could earn slightly above minimum wage with Lawnman Inc.
Classmate Van Dyke, 49, has held a variety of jobs as an adult. She became homeless in 2004 for five years the result, in part, of a crime against her, she and Hamameh say. She spent part of that time living in a park in Fresno.
Van Dyke graduated from the basic job-readiness class at Women's Empowerment in 2011 and worked briefly at Halloween City. She has had a tough time finding other jobs and wonders whether age or her own self-esteem are working against her.
She has never been what she calls the "put-on-the dress" office type. By contrast, landscape maintenance is something Van Dyke enjoys and finds therapeutic.
"My mind goes 24/7. But when I'm out in the yard, everything shuts off. There could be chaos going on around me, but it's quiet. It's very calming for me," she said.
"I'm finally realizing that you've got to get down and dirty, start with a clean slate. What I put into it is what I'm going to get out of it."
The public is invited to check out the new Women's Empowerment quarters.
Where: 1590 North A St., Sacramento.
When: 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday.