Some have been homeless, victims of domestic violence or estranged from their families but with each step of their graduation from Women's Empowerment on Thursday, 28 women walked closer to a job and better lives.
"There was a time when pain was all I knew," graduate MeLissa Cleveland said during a section of the program reserved for the women's reflections. "I didn't know how much I was loved until love was all I had. ... We are not alone. We are not just sisters as alumni of Women's Empowerment. We are sisters in spirit."
A nonprofit that helps women who are homeless, recently homeless or are at risk of being homeless, Women's Empowerment holds graduation ceremonies like Thursday's four times a year. The women attend an eight-week job-readiness program that teaches résumé building, time management, computer skills and more.
The women of Thursday's graduating class, called Session 51, joined a community of 1,036 program alumnae, choosing "Women of Worth" as their graduation theme. At the nonprofit's new facility north of downtown, they stepped up to a microphone to share their struggles with poverty, the challenges of learning new skills and a sense of belonging with their classmates and "sisters," with cheers and encouragement rising from the audience.
"Each person's story of homelessness is as unique as their fingerprint," said Kate Towson, funds developer for the organization.
She said the ceremony invites the community to glimpse a turning point in the graduates' lives, and it can reopen doors between the women and their friends and families.
"We try to bring women into the community and to bring the community to these women," Towson said. "This way, the community can witness their transformation."
Patricia Lake was homeless along the river for two years before she contacted Women's Empowerment. Because of a substance abuse problem, she was not able to enroll in the program right away. Lake found a recovery program and joined Session 51.
Lake read the poem "Phenomenal Woman," by Maya Angelou, to the crowd for her reflection. She has been clean for 16 months, and landed a production job with Blue Diamond Growers.
"I'm in a position in my life to succeed," Lake said. "The ceremony signifies a new positive direction in my life, a step in my journey. I'm ready to go for it, to be that mom, be that grandmother, be everything I can be."
One of her two daughters, Jenny Linares of Elk Grove, and Lake's grandchildren attended the ceremony. Lake said her family is among her biggest supporters.
"We weren't in contact with her a long time, but since the programs, we've been spending more time together," Linares said. "We can talk and laugh and cry and repair relationships."
For 18 months, Jessica Lewis of Sacramento has been going through several social service programs, coping with her history as a victim of domestic violence. She has participated in Women's Empowerment mock interviews, received advice for dressing professionally and took advantage of résumé training.
"I was not sure I could make it on my own, but I can," Lewis said. "I thought I'd have to settle for minimum wage, but now I know I'm worth more than that."
Each participant writes a short autobiography to hang on the walls of the Women's Empowerment facility. Lewis said writing hers was one of the more challenging activities.
"I know what I've been through, but I've been afraid to write it down and share it," she said.
"Sometimes I like to pretend those things weren't real. But it's OK. It makes me who I am, and I don't have to live that way.
"This program literally saves and changes lives, and I'm grateful for this opportunity."
Call The Bee's Morgan Searles, (916) 321-1102. Follow her in Twitter @morgansearles.