THEY COULD have been graduating from Harvard or Stanford, their smiles and pride beamed so brightly.
The 21 people who completed two new training programs had as much of a reason to celebrate as any Ivy League grad. Some covered more distance in six weeks of training than a number of college students can in four years.
A satisfying stop in their journey came two Saturdays ago as they gathered on a platform at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center.
Some had come from Welfare Way and were headed to Independence Avenue. For them, this is not a story of going from welfare to work, but from entitlement to entrepreneurship.
The types of businesses they are creating may not impress Wall Street, or even the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, but each will cause a tiny, important ripple in economic waters.
The training programs are part of Howard County's response to welfare reform, something that was needed, although not in the harsh form that Congress passed -- and President Clinton signed -- last year.
Early results suggest that welfare reform is working, but proponents should keep the corks on champagne bottles until hard times come and private enterprise proves that it will do its part.
But support of or opposition to welfare reform is not the key issue now. The change has come. And so far, Howard County's Department of Social Services has responded well with its Jobs First program.
County DSS Director Sam Marshall reports that more than 400 former welfare recipients have found jobs in the months since the legislation took effect.
Last Saturday's ceremony for the twin training programs demonstrated cooperation among county agencies to make welfare reform work.
Elder care and child care
Mr. Marshall's department joined with the county's Department of Citizen Services and its Office of Housing and Community Development on the two innovative training initiatives that are providing skills people need to find jobs and spawning "micro-enterprises" in the child care and elder care fields.
All seven graduates of Project Discovery, one component of the program, hope to open home child care operations. They would become self-sufficient while providing an important service for other working parents. They have gone through 36 hours of classroom training, where they have learned first aide, child development, CPR, nutrition and all-important record-keeping procedures.
All have applied for family child care licenses; some are on the verge of getting them.
"To me, Project Discovery means learning more about caring for children and helping to build a future," remarked Sharon Robinson, a young woman who covered her blushing face with papers as she stood at the rostrum to address the audience of about 60 friends and supporters of graduates.
At some point while helping to train Project Discovery participants, Wafa Sturdivant, of the Partnership for Children, questioned whether the program served a real purpose.
"Are we doing them a favor?" Ms. Sturdivant recalled discussing with other teachers. "This is one of the lowest-paying fields.
"As we thought about it at length, we realized all the benefits," she concluded.
The teachers put their doubts to rest when they considered that the graduates would operate their own businesses and discover independence. "But the most important thing," she said, turning to the group, "is that you're making a difference."
The other training program, Family Eldercare, included 14 people trained with the help of Selective Homes, Inc. and the county's Office on Aging. They will either operate assisted-living businesses from home or work for assisted-living centers in need of well-trained employees.
They went through six weeks of training to study record-keeping and preparing for regulatory inspections, and then spent six weeks working at different types of facilities for elderly residents.
One of the graduates is Mickie Strong, who recently opened her elder care business in her bright and beautiful Turf Valley home. She already has one elderly resident and hopes to get her home certified as an assisted-living home for five residents.
Mrs. Strong never was a welfare recipient. She ran her own retail business for 22 years. The program helped her learn to run a different kind of business.
"The biggest thing I learned from this class is that in order for an administrator to provide residents the best possible service, it is important to have the best people working for me," said Mrs. Strong, whose entrepreneurial heart is into caring for the elderly.
Mrs. Strong became convinced that she could handle the responsibilities of caring for elderly people, and that she wanted to do it, when she cared for her mother-in-law at times for four years.
The 21 graduates of Project Discovery and Family Eldercare had reason to smile at their ceremony. They are helping others while helping themselves.
Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.
Pub Date: 9/14/97