Singer trades welfare for studio

April 26, 1993|By Claudia Rosenbaum | Claudia Rosenbaum,The Prince George's Journal

SUITLAND -- Jamila Jaye Woods remembers the day in 1986 when -- single, pregnant and on welfare -- she told her caseworker at the county Department of Social Services she wanted to go back to college and get her degree.

The caseworker tried to dissuade Ms. Woods, telling her to concentrate on her daily problems and not set such high goals. This advice did not sit well with her.

"I was determined I was going to get my college degree or lose my mind," said Ms. Woods, now 29.

Seven years later, Ms. Woods has done just that. Even though it meant working three jobs at a time and taking her son to school with her, she got her bachelor's degree from Howard University and pulled herself off welfare.

And she didn't stop there. After a local recording artist noticed her in the choir of her church, Full Gospel AME Zion in Suitland, Ms. Woods began to concentrate on singing, which she had put off for years because she was too consumed with day-to-day survival. Now she devotes much of her spare time to practicing and working with her band.

In March, Ms. Woods celebrated the release of her first solo album, "Can My Gown Be White Again?"

"Everyone told me I wouldn't be able to do this," Ms. Woods said. "They said either I was crazy or determined. I told them I was crazy enough to believe I could do anything."

Ms. Woods was three months pregnant when she moved to Suitland in 1986. The ministry for which she worked at the time discovered she was having a child out of wedlock and fired her because, her superiors said, she was setting a bad example. For months, she looked for another job, hiding her pregnancy during interviews.

Desperate, she signed up for welfare. She said the system was humiliating and did nothing to help her overcome her situation. Seven months pregnant, she finally landed a job as a secretary at the U.S. Census Bureau office in Suitland, but it wasn't long before she left on maternity leave.

Fortunately, her boss understood her predicament. When she returned to work, she finished school with the benefit of the Commerce Department's tuition reimbursement program. After passing an exam, she was promoted to professional status and now works as a survey statistician at the department.

Besides caring for her 5-year-old son Gabriel, she has taken two of her sister's children into her two-bedroom apartment.

Ms. Woods said her experience allows her to reach out to others who might feel they are in a no-win situation. She volunteers at Back to Basics, a ministry for the homeless, and encourages its clients to change their lives.

"I tell them you can do whatever you want to, but first, you have to believe in your heart that you can really do it," she said. "If you really want to get out of your situation, then there's a way. There's got to be a way."

For now, Ms. Woods is reveling in her success. The living room of her apartment is cluttered with boxes of her debut cassette.

Leslie Fleet, a co-worker at the Census Bureau, said Ms. Woods' story makes people believe and trust her. Her songs, he said, are designed to reach others who might feel hopelessness in their lives and compel them to change.

"She's been through it all, but at this point, I feel her excitement for the future," he said.

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