Joy, tears at graduation ceremony for formerly homeless women

One by one, the graduates of Session 63 stepped up to the podium and described their circumstances on the day they arrived at a Sacramento program called Women’s Empowerment.

Broken. Addicted. Homeless. Lost. Afraid.

With nervous voices and tears in their eyes, they talked about transformation. They used words such as hope and strength and confidence. They boasted about job offers and college enrollment, stable housing and healthy relationships.

“With the support of everyone here,” said Kimber Payne, who was recently out of prison and living in her car when she began the program, “I believe I can do anything.”

Payne and 26 other women who gathered with family, friends and staff members Wednesday morning are among 1,349 graduates of the nonprofit group’s intensive training program, designed to prepare abused, addicted and homeless women for employment and life. Women’s Empowerment, founded 15 years ago and now with a $1 million annual budget, attests that 80 percent of its graduates either have a job or are enrolled in school a year after completing more than eight weeks of training in basic computer skills, writing résumés and searching for employment.

Participants work with mentors and social workers to sort through their emotional issues and build confidence. They take yoga and exercise classes to relieve stress. Many are mothers whose younger children can get care on site at Women’s Empowerment on North A Street while they are in class. Older children can attend school at the nearby Loaves & Fishes homeless services complex.

Most of the women who apply to the program have not worked in years. Many are drug and alcohol abusers, or mentally ill. A majority are either homeless or on the edge of homelessness. Some are fleeing abusive relationships.

Participants must be clean and sober, or actively working toward that goal, and their mental conditions must be under control, said Kate Towson, development director for Women’s Empowerment. They attend classes every weekday from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Unexcused absences are not tolerated.

By the end of each session, participants have bonded with staff members, volunteers and one another, said Towson. They are family.

That phenomenon was on display at a warm outdoor ceremony in the Women’s Empowerment courtyard Wednesday. Graduates wearing dresses, some of them teetering in high heels, celebrated their accomplishments, and the accomplishments of the women they called their sisters. Mothers, children and friends in the audience held balloons and bouquets. Youngsters cheerfully cried out, “Mom!” as graduates were introduced.

Cristi Brouhard teared up when her sister, Tracy, walked to the podium. It was Cristi, a 2010 graduate of the program, who encouraged her sister to enroll. Now Tracy is sober and pursuing jobs working with elderly people.

“I feel optimistic and blessed beyond words,” Tracy told the crowd.

“I will be a success,” she said, singling out her sister, her mentor and the staff and volunteers at Women’s Empowerment. “I will go forward and make you proud!”

Derkisha Wofford, 28, brought a portable keyboard to the podium and sang a song dedicated to the women she said propped her up as she juggled the demands of the program and the needs of her four children.

“Wherever you set your heart,” she sang, “just believe. Don’t give up on yourself.”

A couple of her fellow graduates dabbed their eyes with tissues.

Wofford, orginally from Stockton, said she fled an abuser in Texas and was living in a homeless shelter with her children when she discovered Women’s Empowerment.

“It gave me confidence,” she said. “It made me realize that I had what it takes to do well in life. It was not just about job readiness. It’s about self-love and self-respect. Life can bring challenges, but you can’t run from them. The program taught me self-sufficiency.”

Wofford lives in a transitional housing program, but has dreams of owning a home.

“I want to buy a house for the first time,” she said, “have a place where my kids can have their own space, and a nice backyard. My own little sanctuary.”

She plans to work part time and pursue a business management degree, with a larger goal of starting a nonprofit organization like Women’s Empowerment in Stockton.

“Before, I was so afraid, so unsure about the future,” she said. “Now, I can’t wait to see what the future holds for me.”

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert