Life began to change, Martha Caldwell said, when she received an "unwanted letter" from the Department of Social Services.
A year ago, she was living in "a mouse-infested project in Cherry Hill," taking welfare payments, caring for her four children and three grandchildren.
But the letter told her she had been selected to enroll in Project Independence, the federally mandated, state-run program meant to guidewelfare recipients off the dole and into jobs and self-sufficiency. She was not interested, she recalled, and resented being told what to do. But she was aware that failure to join the program meant a cut in her monthly check.
Yesterday, Ms. Caldwell, 40, stood on a stage at the University of Baltimore to tell an audience of about 300 how her life has changed. Today she is a nursing assistant who earned top grades. In March, she begins nursing school. She lives in "a lovely town house." She owns a 1987 Ford Escort -- that is paid off.
"I learned that anything worth having," Ms. Caldwell said, "is worth working for."
Yesterday's conference, sponsored by non-profit groups and government agencies, was organized to explain how the 2-year-old program works and to hear suggestions on improvements from an audience that included staff members from social services offices and some Project Independence graduates.
The Maryland program began in July 1989, part of the federal FamilySupport Act approved by Congress a year earlier. Since then, about 5,000 Maryland welfare recipients have completed the program and gotten jobs, said Deanna Phelps, the Project Independence director. Not all remain employed, often because companies cut jobs. But about 2,500 Project Independence graduates have left the welfare rolls.
"The idea was not to create a new job-training program," Ms. Phelps said. "The whole goal has been economic self-sufficiency."
The Department of Human Resources began by narrowing the field of welfare recipients to a group most likely to benefit from the program, a group that includes teen-age parents and long-term welfare recipients.
Under federal guidelines, Maryland this year must enroll 11 percent of that eligible group in the program. The mandated caseload increases over time, with the state required by 1995 to enroll 20 percent of eligible welfare recipients in Project Independence.
The program is flexible. It helps some clients with education programs: high-school equivalencies, community college classes. It offers job counseling. And it teaches "life skills": how to dress for work, how to budget, how to get to work on time, how to get through a job interview.
The program has a $20 million budget this year -- about $12 million in federal funds, the rest from state and local money.
And though not all participants manage to hold on to their jobs in the recession, "we're still placing people in jobs," Ms. Phelps said. "They're entry-level jobs, but what we emphasize in the program is they're not dead-end jobs."
Despite the successes highlighted yesterday, Project Independence is not perfect.
Kimberly Fendlay, a Baltimore County mother of a young daughter, said some welfare workers were "intimidating, very discourteous" -- though once she made it into Project Independence she found the counselors very encouraging.
And all participants said they would have been less anxious at the start of the program if their counselors had communicated better about how the course would progress.
Still, the participants all said they have emerged from Program Independence more confident, better able to find work -- and better off financially.
"I have a washer now," Ms. Fendlay announced. "And I don't have to go to the laundromat. Those days are gone."