Program offers a new beginning

Achievers: The Caroline Center helps disadvantaged women gain job training, high school degrees and bigger dreams.

November 21, 1999|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Shawne Street had been on and off welfare for years when she got a notice for a job-training program.

She tossed it in the trash.

Two days later, another notice arrived in the mail. Only this time, she couldn't ignore it.

Reluctantly, ordered there under welfare reform, the 35-year-old single mother enrolled at the Caroline Center in East Baltimore. By her second week, she had a different attitude.

"It was like the first day of the rest of my life," she said.

Yesterday, Street joined 30 women to celebrate their graduation from the Caroline Center, an education and jobs program run by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a Roman Catholic order of nuns.

Friends, husbands and children cheered from the pews of the Urban Bible Fellowship Church at East Eager and North Aisquith streets, as the women marched up the aisle to receive their certificates.

All of them are employed -- as secretaries and office managers, child-care providers, painters and nurse's assistants. Twelve women were especially proud -- they were dressed in caps and gowns, picking up diplomas that showed they had earned their high school equivalency degrees.

"I feel a great sense of accomplishment," said Denise Thorner, 40, whose husband, James, came to the church with a bouquet of balloons. But her high school degree is "only the beginning. I want to go to college."

The Caroline Center opened three years ago to teach disadvantaged women the skills they need for the work world.

It is named for Sister Caroline Friess, the founder of the American congregation of nuns that has educated thousands of young women at their schools in Baltimore, the Institute of Notre Dame and Notre Dame Preparatory School. It continues a tradition from the mid-1800s, when the order's first nuns took in orphans and educated immigrants.

More than half of the Caroline Center's graduates were sent there as part of the state's welfare-to-work effort. Others were unemployed or had only held minimum-wage jobs.

"You can't just say to somebody, `Here's your resume, and here are the want ads,' " said Sister Patricia McLaughlin, the center's executive director.

Women spend the first six weeks taking free classes, learning computer skills and improving their reading, writing and arithmetic. They then receive training for clerical, child care, house painting or geriatric nursing careers.

Graduates like Kiana Berry said they were motivated by the one-on-one instruction and encouragement from the staff.

"It was much easier to learn in this program than any other I tried," said Berry, 22, who had dropped out of high school but now has her degree.

Street credits the Caroline Center with helping her gain not just the skills, but also the confidence to find a better-paying job as a geriatric nursing aide.

She had worked at a string of jobs while raising her 10-year-old son, Chad, in the Hamilton area. But none lasted or paid well: She was a cook at a restaurant that went out of business and a cashier at a convenience store that was robbed at gunpoint.

"I was always a worker," she said. "But if you don't have experience, nobody wants you."

These days, Street dares to dream big -- of college, a nursing career and a better future.

"It definitely made me feel better about myself," she said.

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