By Lucia Espino
Encarnacion Rojas, 36, could not hold back tears when delivering her speech last December during her graduation ceremony from the Christian Women’s Job Corps program.
She had written words of thanks and gratitude just a few days before delivering the speech, she said, making sure that every person who was part of this “life-changing experience” was acknowledged.
On a recent morning in her home, Rojas read from her speech as we sat across from each other at her dining table. The speech was still in its original form, handwritten in notebook paper.
“When I first came to Christian Women’s Job Corps I was discouraged and I had no self-esteem…I went from giving up, to having hope for a better future,” Rojas said.
Her speech reflected how the workforce training program, located in San Antonio’s economically disadvantaged South Side, strengthened her self-esteem and encouraged her to continue her education.
The program is limited to 10 women over 18 years of age, living or at the margin of poverty for any reason. Applicants are required to turn in an application and be interviewed.
Classes are held 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday during fall and spring semesters at Harlandale Baptist Church, 502 E. Southcross Blvd. This semester’s session began in late February. Programming is free and women can register as long as there is space available.
The job corp program offers 11 courses including computer classes, financial management courses, and nutrition and health education. These courses will provide participants with basic academic knowledge, lifestyle changes and personal finance management, including establishing a 401K.
The program also offers family and parenting classes, along with anger management. Participants will learn why and how to be involved with their children’s education, be a role model for them, and how to control their negative emotions to not let them out against their loved ones.
Women in the program will receive lunch, school supplies, and a bus pass or money for gas. An internship at the church’s food bank and thrift store provides work experience.
Adela Esquivel-Booth, program’s executive director, said some of the women who attend the program are widowed or divorced, and now carry full financial responsibility for their families.
“Most of these ladies never had the need to work, or it has been a long time since their last paycheck,” she said.
Women who finish the program, she explained, have a better chance at finding a decent job, but the great jobs are in areas that will require them to further their education.
Counseling and Bible study are also part of the program’s courses, but they are not mandatory. “We don’t enforce religion on anyone,” Esquivel-Booth said.
“Some of these women are homeless or getting out of domestic violence; others are going through or coming out of rehab or alcoholic anonymous…the past is the past and you need to move on, it can be done,” Esquivel-Booth said.
The 12-week nonprofit-program is funded by donations and volunteers from other churches in the community, Esquivel-Booth continued.
In contrast with most of the women who register for the program, Rojas, a ‘94 Harlandale High School graduate, is currently employed and said she has been working as a tax preparer.
She applied for the program because she was interested in expanding her knowledge in basic office computer programs.
The program referred Rojas to Joseph Enderle, Family Self-Sufficiency program’s coordinator, who is now helping her find resources to continue her education. The FSS program is part of the city’s San Antonio Housing Authority and assists families to become self-sufficient until SAHA’s support is no longer needed.
Rojas’ “true love” is mathematics, but in April she will began training for a future job as a pharmacy technician, something that she would not have considered without the computer skills and self-empowerment she gained through the FSS program.
Due to the program, Rojas told me, she has a plan over the next five years to continue the college education she left unfinished six years ago while attending Palo Alto College. Today, she wants to pursue a degree in accounting and hopes to one day open her own accounting office.
While job prospects in the city appear to be improving, San Antonio’s unemployment rate remains at 5.7 percent. This is better compared to December 2011 when it was 6.7 percent, Veronica Downey, labor market analyst at the Texas Workforce Commission, said.
The city is currently ranked number seven in the U.S., from lowest to highest percentage of unemployment, she continued.
Treviño told me that nine years ago the program had a perfect attendance student who never had the need to work until she became widowed at 70 years of age. She finished the job training program and three days later was employed as a receptionist at a local clinic.
Today, she continues to work at the same clinic and is one of the program’s advocates and best examples, he said.
Programs like this offered on the city’s South Side are designed to prepare more low-income and minority women for the workforce.
She mentioned the program’s staff will encourage, support and guide them if they choose to enroll in higher education.
“Future is all about choices,” she said.
Mentors provide help
Those teaching the courses are volunteers but have had professional experience as well.
For example, retired teachers are in charge of the academic courses, the finance management course is led by a USAA employee, and the church’s pastor leads the spiritual guidance sessions, Esquivel-Booth said.
A mentor, any Christian woman volunteer, is assigned to each member enrolled in the program, she said, adding that they will be paired by similar interests and will be available for counseling or spiritual guidance, she said.
“Someone will teach them how to do their make-up, hair and dress for success…they have to show their success,” she continued.
In addition to Tuesday’s Bible class, every morning women in the program have devotional time where a Bible verse is chosen for discussion on how it applies to everyday life.
“Prayer helps. It’s like talking to someone,” Esquivel-Booth said.
Rojas was not a member of this church, but said her favorite class was Bible study. She remembers almost “taking over” during devotional time.
“Adela was the one asking me every morning what we were going to talk about that day, instead of me asking her,” she said smiling.
As a new Christian, Rojas recognizes how the program nourished her religious devotion and in conjunction with learning computer skills, she finished the program “better-prepared…empowered and with hope.”
“There will be fun and laughter…it is not all work, work, work,” Esquivel-Both said. Stitching, crocheting and arts and crafts are some of the creativity classes.
Her favorite activity of the program is when, as she described it, “We take the pieces and we put them back together.”
During the program, the women are asked to paint the most important elements of their lives on pottery. They later break it into pieces and they are put back together by other members in the program.
Esquivel-Both said, the meaning behind this is that you can still become a whole person again with the help of all these people that care for you.
Helping one at a time
While the job training program has been successful since its first session in 2004, Dan Treviño, Harlandale Baptist Church’s pastor, said the goal is to be able to admit more women and provide day care.
He said the church is considering creating a Christian Men’s Job Corps.
In a nine year period, the program has seen 312 women successfully finish the program with the goal of graduating more members each semester.
“If we can change one (member), then we have been successful,” he continued.
Rojas is willing to help the program expand into the West Side of San Antonio. She hopes the job training program could soon have a bilingual program or even ESL classes for those who want to join but are not English speakers.
“A lot of people ask me if the program is bilingual because they want to go but their English is not so good,” she said.
For women interested who are not sure about attending the program, Rojas said “there is light for a new life behind all of our roadblocks, and CWJC will help you seek it.”
For information about the workforce program, call Esquivel-Booth at 210-797-1552 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.