Eighteen Baltimore women who once walked aimlessly through lives dominated by addiction, homelessness and incarceration paraded with conviction Saturday across the front of a North Baltimore church, proud to receive a long-awaited validation.
The women are high school and college graduates who, decades after they dropped out of high school or failed to continue their education, turned to the Marian House — a nonprofit organization located in the Better Waverly neighborhood that provides transitional support services for women and their families.
On Saturday, the organization, which has served more than 1,000 women in its 29-year history, held its first graduation ceremony for those who got their re-launch at the organization's George W. McManus Education Center.
Katie Allston, executive director of the Marian House, told graduates that while those who receive their education later in life are usually acknowledged by receiving a piece of paper in the mail, "they have worked just as hard and still deserve the celebration."
But the ceremony also sent a message, Allston said. "The day someone looks at a dropout and thinks there's no hope … [they've] certainly lost all hope in society."
Family and friends of the participants held cell phone cameras, cheering the high school graduates clad in blue caps and gowns and college graduates donning blue and white flowers. The United Church of Jesus Christ Apostolic hosted the ceremony, which featured tearful testimonials of past Marian House residents.
"I feel like this is something that everyone should have," said Veronica Baker, 37, who was recognized for obtaining her high school diploma on Christmas Eve in 2008. "I made a lot of mistakes that cost me this … but it just makes so much more real."
The high school graduates also participated in a ceremony in which they received engraved rings with the Marian House logo, an idea of board member Patricia Batza.
Baker, who dropped out of high school at the age of 16 and was convicted of 23 misdemeanors before she gave up her 15-year-drug addiction, said she "just wanted to do something different," when she turned to the Marian House in 2007 after being released from a short jail stint.
Now that she's done something different, Baker said, she wants to do more. "I want to go to college — I don't know when or where — but this just makes me want to go to the next step," she said, beaming at the certificate for academic excellence from the ceremony.
The Saturday ceremony also recognized eight women who took the steps to receive their associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees.
Donna Jackson, 45, said that when she turned to the Marian House in 2002 as a birthday gift to herself, she wanted to complete what she started at Salisbury University decades ago, where she attended for one year before alcoholism halted her education. She now holds a business degree from Morgan State University and an associate's degree from the Baltimore City Community College.
"I wanted what I wanted when I wanted it — which was just complete disarray," recalled Jackson, who is currently working on her master's in social work at Morgan. "When I found out about this place, it was on. I came here and never looked back."
Jackson has remained connected to the organization in the nine years since she completed its three-phrase program, which ends with successful participants recapturing their independence.
Two of Jackson's three children, whom she said she "separated herself" from in 2000, watched her be honored Saturday.
"It brought everybody together again," said her 16-year-old daughter, Lea Carter. Carter recalled going to school with her mother, helping her with homework and projects. "I'm really proud of her — just, really happy."
Sister Sharon Brunier, coordinator of the George W. McManus Education Center, said education is usually the catalyst for the Marian House women to piece all aspects of their lives back together.
"It's a real asset to their self-esteem," Brunier said. "Once the women realize 'I'm capable of this,' it gives them the courage to continue."