From caretaking to workforce: The Legislature cut this statewide program, but in one county it’s still alive, helping people get new skills

Ayesha Williams
Ayesha Williams was able to get skills and a job through the Displaced Homemaker Program. Photo courtesy of Michele Sharp

Elizabeth Pineda’s husband had always been the family’s main breadwinner. It wasn’t until her marriage fell on hard times, though, that she realized the extent of her dependence. She’d held office jobs in the past, but found herself stymied in her job search.

“I was not up to par with my skills,” she says. “This was a shocking wake up call.” An acquaintance told her about a local Displaced Homemaker Program in Gainesville and she reached out for help. The woman who answered the phone was “so kind, so patient, so non-judgmental. I cried as I explained my situation and she invited me to come in to the office.”

Pineda enrolled in the Displaced Homemaker Program at Santa Fe College, taking workshops on improving computer skills, communicating assertively, and learning ways to manage time and stress.

The term “homemaker” may seem outdated to some, but there’s still a deep need for programs that help women navigate changes when they lose financial and emotional support. Today’s at-risk homemakers may be:

Santa Fe’s program is one of the last of the Displaced Homemaker Programs standing in Florida. Even though the rules for poor women who need public assistance to keep their families afloat now require them to go to work and figure out child care, state lawmakers systematically cut the Displaced Homemaker Programs.

The programs started in the 1970’s, when the American divorce rate rose. Divorced women who spent years performing unpaid work at home and relied on their husbands for economic security increasingly found themselves in poverty. A national coalition of activists successfully lobbied 39 states and the federal government to create Displaced Homemaker Programs to help newly-single women achieve independence. By 1979, some 300 programs operated nationwide, including 16 in Florida. The first programs served women over 35; in the 1990s, the criteria expanded to include displaced men and others who were displaced from positions as unpaid caregivers for family members.

Florida paid for its programs through fees on marriage licenses and marriage dissolutions. The programs were subject to rigorous state reporting and funding match requirements and regularly met their goals, yet the Florida Legislature routinely threatened to cut funding. In 2014, Gov. Rick Scott exercised a line-item veto for the state’s Displaced Homemaker Programs, causing some to shut down. State funding was restored in 2015, but in 2016, the Legislature cut it altogether.

Six of the eight remaining Florida Displaced Homemaker Programs were forced to close their doors entirely; one, in Sarasota was folded into a regional consortium of women’s services. Only the program at Santa Fe College survived intact because the college stepped up to ensure it would continue.

Today, it’s run by three former displaced homemakers who graduated from the program: coordinator JoAnn Wilkes, Wanda Howard-Holmes and Karen Sheets. All stuck it out through de-funding threats from the state, never knowing year-to-year whether they would still have jobs. But they knew the program had benefits for the region: Graduates work in local businesses, hospitals, schools, and governments. They are living proof, supporters say,  of how local anti-poverty programs that offer personalized, supportive training succeed.

Santa Fe made some tweaks to the program, reducing the age requirement from 35 to 30 because it became apparent that younger women in the community needed services. They spread word by going to neighborhood festivals and block parties, because you never know when a woman who is in an untenable situation – particularly a violent marriage –  will find the courage to make a change.

Santa Fe’s Displaced Homemaker Program also partners with other social service initiatives like the Peaceful Paths anti-violence agency, and contributes to nonprofit efforts like backpack and school supply drives for needy families. The Women’s Giving Circle and the Gainesville Area Women’s Network have all donated money, sponsorships, or in-kind gifts.

Even small amounts, like paying someone’s $32.00 GED test fee, can change lives.

“That may not sound like much,” Santa Fe Program Coordinator Wilkes says, “but it’s a week’s worth of food for kids. Without our program, some women wouldn’t even think about making that reach.”

When Dr. Jackson Sasser was hired as president of Santa Fe College seventeen years ago, he was already familiar with the Displaced Homemaker Program’s mission because he’d seen similar programs in action when he worked in Texas. He was surprised to learn that state funding in Florida was precarious.

“I never understood that,” he said. “It’s a contradiction. Florida touts itself as being performance-oriented. Well, look at the results of this program, and not just here, but across the state. The return on investment is significant.”

Twenty-five graduates from the Displaced Homemaker Program now work at Santa Fe College, including  Elizabeth Pineda.

“Our world is constantly improving,” she says. “Technology is a constant and updating is a must.”

Once Pineda finished the workshops, she was encouraged to take a volunteer position in the Displaced Homemaker Program office to gain experience.

“I sat at one of the front desks,” she said. “I would greet visitors, faculty and staff. I would answer phones and finish any task that was asked of me. Not a day went by that someone didn’t remind me of the ‘lucky seat’ I was sitting in.”

She was able to get a job at Santa Fe College through TempForce, and that turned into a permanent, full-time position.

Another graduate of the program is Ayesha Williams, a single mother of three.  Today, she’s studying for an operational management degree at Santa Fe and working part time as a client advocate for domestic violence survivors at the nonprofit organization Peaceful Paths. The work, she says, has deepened her skills in dealing with diverse groups and understanding systems thinking – both important to her ultimate career goal of managing a community organization.

For Williams, the key ingredient the program provided to help her re-imagine her life was support.

“Being someone who lacked emotional and academic support, the program helped me re-focus and re-dedicate myself back to my own success,”  she said. “It’s a thriving, empowering environment.”

Santa Fe College President Sasser says he is committed to continued support of the program.

“Each client that comes in finds a better path,” he says. “And then they have the skill set to find a better job. I used to say if I had to sell cookies on the corner to keep this program running, I would.”

 

 

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