By: Laurie Peterson Issue: Vision Section: Community It was the first time that I can remember driving home in silence—no music, no talk shows, no noise. I had just finished speaking with an absolutely amazing woman, Anna, who was selfless, content, and resilient. It is a true pleasure knowing her.
Anna and I met one evening at her place of work, The Corner Office in Denver. We sat down to a meal that she had prepared that day, and it was her first time actually sitting in the dining room of the restaurant.
I first met Anna last November at the Work Options for Women (WOW) fall/winter graduation. WOW helps impoverished women gain the skills and confidence they need to work their way out of poverty and become gainfully and permanently employed in the food service industry.
As friends and families filed into the church pews, Anna had a group of over 30 people in attendance supporting her. Shy and quiet, she was unsure of sitting down for a brief interview to discuss what the WOW program meant to her and her family. However, as we spoke, Anna easily opened up about her experience with Work Options for Women. A returned Gulf War Veteran, she found herself homeless after her six year service in the Navy as a medical assistant and ambulance driver.
Unexpectedly, Anna found herself in a life-changing situation—she and her significant other would become the guardian of two children for the next ten years. If they couldn’t take these children, they would have been put into the foster care system. Being a child of the system herself, Anna did not want that to happen. Sacrificing herself and her own needs, she set everything aside to raise these two boys in a home that provided love, guidance, and structure.
After 10 years and realizing it was now time for her, Anna knew it she needed to re-enter the workforce. However, she did not want to rely on her previous experience in the medical field and with the Navy. She says, “I saw too many things and didn’t want to return.” Nearly homeless and having no work skills for the past decade other than taking care of the boys, she went to the Homeless Initiative. There, they recommended her to the Work Options for Women culinary training program.
Anna wasn’t the ideal candidate coming into the program because of her lack of skills. She was going to face an uphill battle where she would have to learn new skills while teaching herself how to refocus. Anna also had to relearn how to physically take care of herself. Growing tired during the day, she was forced to visit the doctor and was diagnosed with diabetes. She had to embrace a different lifestyle—and WOW worked with her through all of it—the trials and the tribulations. During this time, she learned to put herself first and sustained herself with the personal motto—accomplish, conquer, succeed!
Taking me on a tour of the kitchen, I saw where Anna worked as a prep cook, getting everything ready for the day. Spices were lined up perfectly; the workspace was spotless, organized, and extremely tidy.
As we talked about what was next, Anna just laughed and repeated the question back to me. For her what’s next is starting small. “Deal with tomorrow and learn as much as possible. There is so much to learn. That is what is next for now,” she says.
As we wrapped up our tour and interview, I had the pleasure of seeing another WOW graduate that had been hired at The Corner Office. The camaraderie of coming from the same program was undeniable.
I applaud Anna, thank her for her time, her positive attitude, and her willingness to share her story. What’s more, WOW has trained and placed more than 300 women in similar situations in the cooking and food service industry. WOWs job placement and retention metrics are very impressive. Each year from 2006 through 2009, 94 – 100 percent of WOW's students were placed in jobs. During those years, 75 percent of WOW graduates scheduled to mark their one year anniversary of employment successfully did so. And, all of the WOW graduates significantly increased their employment income by working hard, maintaining employment, and receiving raises.
After twelve years of service, WOW remains the only comprehensive job-training program in the Denver area with a consistent track record of helping women end welfare dependence and build the skills necessary to become self-sufficient. To learn more visit www.workoptions.org.