At first glance, you might think that the graduates gathered in the side room of Plates Cafe are nothing more than your typical high schoolers, desperately trying to pin on their caps and checking to see whether their family members have arrived yet.
But these 12 women who obtained high school equivalency degrees are far from typical. Some are victims of domestic violence, others are former drug users, and all are single mothers who sought the help of St. John's Shelter Program for Women and Children.
Founded in 1985, St. John's Shelter works to provide a supportive haven for single mothers and their children. The goal of the shelter is to enroll women in its 90-day program, which aims to transition families from a point of crisis to a point of self-sustainability by teaching participants how to balance familial and financial responsibilities.
Women who stay at the shelter are required to help with chores, attend classes, and maintain sobriety in order to remain in the program.
Those who successfully complete the program (lovingly referred to as "alumnae" by the St. John's staff) are eligible for the shelter's after-care program, which provides them with continued job training and placement services and connects them with other graduates.
Tuesday's ceremony was the second class to get high school equivalency certificates – known as GEDs.
A recent donation has allowed the shelter to increase its offerings to include GED training services for its current and former residents.
State Street Corp., a Boston financial company with an office in Sacramento, issued St. John's an $18,000 grant for the sole purpose of GED preparation.
"Fifty percent of the women who enter the shelter don't have a high school degree," said Michele Steeb, St. John's executive director. "We always encouraged the women to get a GED, but now we have the resources to actually help them do it."
Obtaining a high school equivalency degree means passing the five different GED tests, a process which, according to Maureen Gagliardi, career education and placement director at St. John's, can cost around $300.
"The average (monthly) income of our residents is $450," said Steeb. "They can't do this on their own."
The shelter works to provide more than just financial support, however. Volunteer instructors, such as Joe Matisko and Chris Steiner, come in several times a week to help the women develop test-taking skills.
"A lot of what we do is teach women how to take a test," said Gagliardi. "Plus we give them the motivation and support that they need."
The efforts of the St. John's staff are not lost on the recent graduates.
One graduate, Alina Markham-Love, said she has been intending to attempt the GED test for five years now. But financial trouble, and an inability to afford day care for her child while she studied, prevented her from moving forward.
"I came to the shelter on Feb. 10, and I started GED training within the first week," Markham-Love said. "There was a lot of support, the women were helpful, and they had the day care that I needed."
She found out that she had passed her final exam at 10:15 p.m. Monday night. This confirmation allowed her to walk in Tuesday's graduation ceremony, where the women, with ages ranging from 19 to 47, received framed certificates and heard a keynote speech from Presiding Judge Laurie Earl of the Sacramento Superior Court.
"I've been trying to get my GED since 1989," said 47-year-old graduate Alicia Portillo. "I have paid for the test three times at Fremont Adult School, but it wasn't until I came to the shelter that I could actually make this happen."
Portillo is now two semesters away from graduating from Sierra Community College with a dual degree in psychology and administration of justice.
St. John's just received word that State Street will be renewing the grant for next year, and increasing the donation amount to $20,000. Both Steeb and Gagliardi are confident that this bodes well for the program's long-term future, and they hope to see many more women join the 23 who have been accredited so far.
"What we're offering is a future," Gagliardi reminded graduates in her opening remarks at the ceremony. "You can lose your house, your child, your dog, but you can never lose your education. No one can take that from you."