Newly sober, recently divorced and still homeless, Gilda Patterson was riding a bus to the unemployment office one day in March, trying to re-enter the job market at age 45.
"I was outlining a resume. The woman sitting next to me said she had gone to Maryland New Directions and they assisted her with her resume," the Baltimore woman said.
She walked into the community agency's offices on North
Charles Street in Baltimore, asked for help with a resume, and got much more: career planning, a gradual boost in her self-esteem, help returning to school and advice on how to get the electricity turned back on when she had trouble paying the bill.
She got her own apartment and is taking community college courses toward becoming an addictions counselor.
Now she is the one who tells other women on the street where to go for help.
Ms. Patterson is among thousands of women across the state who are "displaced homemakers," who need a job that brings the kind of money they once relied on from husbands, as they raised children and ran the house.
Ms. Patterson cared for her sick mother-in-law in addition to raising her son.
"I was always a caregiver, and I didn't know what Gilda wanted," Ms. Patterson said. "All this work has helped me focus on me."
A conference at the Lord Baltimore Hotel this week drew 150 women and men who do the local work behind a national organization called "Women Work! The National Network for Women's Employment."
Women Work! Board President Olivia G. White said the organization was known until last year as the National Displaced Homemakers Network, until the name was changed to reflect its effort to include other employment issues that affect women.
"That covers all women, but displaced homemakers are still our target audience. Across the country, there are 1,200 programs and 400,000 women getting direct services," said Ms. White, dean of students and an acting vice president at Hood College.
In Maryland, about 3,000 people get help through about $1 million in federal money that helps teen parents, displaced homemakers and other single parents get the job training and education they need.
The state Department of Human Resources spends another $1 million toward the same programs, drawing 1,700 new clients a year.
Some of the displaced homemakers need just a few months of help; some need several years, officials say.
Displaced homemakers need practical job training, resume writing, career counseling -- but much more, Ms. White said.
Programs work on building self-esteem, and teaching women how to conduct themselves in an interview and on the job.
"Some of these women are entering the job market for the first time," Ms. White said.
The local programs are run by community-based agencies or colleges such as New Directions in Baltimore, the YWCA in Anne Arundel County, and the community colleges in Baltimore and Carroll counties.
Tears still come to Vikki Myers' eyes when she talks about the day she first walked into the displaced-homemaker program at Carroll Community College four years ago.
"I had no more than two sentences out and the tears started," said Ms. Myers, 35, of Manchester. She is the divorced mother of three young children.
"Just being by yourself with these kids and trying to do everything," she said, her voice breaking.
She had always worked, but only in low-paying jobs to supplement her husband's earnings. Her part-time job at a sewing factory earned her about $150 a week. Child care cost $120 a week. Something had to give.
Through the program at Carroll, called Renew, she linked with Project Independence, a state program that provides job training and child care for low-income people.
Now she manages the mail and supply room at Carroll Community College. Her annual income has gone from about $4,000, four years ago, to about $20,000. She can give her children things they want and need, she said, but not just the material ones.
"No. 1 is patience. I never, ever had patience and was too stressed out all the time," she said. "It hasn't been anything you can do overnight. It has taken me four years to get to where I am with my kids today."
Thinking one day at a time isn't enough, said Beverly Woerner, 49, of Westminster, another woman who increased her self-esteem, marketability and income through the Renew program at Carroll Community College.
"Sometimes it's one hour at a time. That's the only way you can survive," Ms. Woerner said.
She was virtually out of the work force for 20 years while raising two children, who are now grown. She and her ex-husband divorced when the children were 13 and 15, seven years ago.
"After being married for so many years and then you find yourself totally responsible for the upbringing of your children," she said.
As she spent time trying to learn the technology and computer skills that have become standard since she last had to earn a paycheck, she was nervous about leaving her children home alone for the first time.
"I really felt like I was deserting my children," Ms. Woerner said. "They say you do what you have to do."
Her income went up just as Ms. Myers' did, from $4,000 about seven years ago, to $23,500 this year as a media technician at the community college.
As she continues her education through classes at Carroll, she feels she's setting a good example for her children.
"We're the survivors," Ms. Woerner said of herself, Ms. Myers and Ms. Patterson, who were sitting together during a break at the conference.
She has seen other women overwhelmed by the prospect of walking into a job interview with anything resembling confidence.
"You take someone who's been married 30 years, and it's hard," Ms. Woerner said.
"Some women out there just can't make it."