It’s a rainy Monday evening — the kind you’d rather spend on the couch with a bowl of mac n’ cheese and Netflix — when the students in the CornerStone Initiative’s Jobs 4 Life class trek to the house on Holmes Avenue for their next session. It’s a good mix of people — some are employed, some are underemployed, and some are still looking for a job. And there are the mentors, people at the top of their careers who are looking to share some knowledge, but they aren’t there to strictly impart wisdom. Instead, they act as cheerleaders, someone who knows the students’ stories and walks alongside them.
Ashley, Eboni and Tab are all students, all mothers who are juggling pickup lines, homework schedules and teenage hormones, but they still make Jobs 4 Life a priority. Their lives are often lumped in together with the collective students-in-programs mess, but they are more than just random people looking for a new job. They are unique, dynamic and wildly different in their dreams and goals.
The area where they live is almost as diverse as they are. Tucked behind Holmes Avenue, the neighborhood is a solid mix of young, single-parent homes, older people who have been there since the 50s and stand around talking about their assorted cats, and even some immigrants who are looking for a better life.
Still, they’re more than a demographic. They’re vibrant, driven women who are looking for a change for themselves and their families. These aren’t sob stories by any means. If anything, the women should be applauded for coming so far, holding it all together, and being able to speak matter-of-factly about the obstacles life has thrown at them.
Ashley walks into the back office of Cornerstone Initiative smiling, carrying a plate of pizza and ready to talk. The free dinner is just an added benefit of Jobs 4 Life classes, and you can smell it the second you walk into the house. She’s a graduate from Butler High School who moved around for a while then returned to Huntsville to buy the same house she grew up in. She has two children driving her decision to better herself.
It was her child’s godmother who suggested Jobs 4 Life. Ashley has a job, but it’s a big-box store known for its rough working environment — we won’t say which one in the event her boss reads this. The godmother helped her apply, and a short time later she was sitting in the bi-weekly classes.
“I’m glad I did because it’s a really good program,” Ashley said. “I have revealed things about myself that I never thought that I would be able to tell anybody, and it’s religious-based, and I love that because I don’t have to feel embarrassed by … expressing myself. … You really feel a lot of love.”
Ashley grew up in a single parent home with a mother who was bipolar and often refused to take her medicines. Last year, Ashley was sexually assaulted in her own home, something she hadn’t talked about before Jobs 4 Life.
“I just felt comfortable that I could just … release that,” Ashley said. “I had been holding it in.”
Once she was able to talk about the assault, Ashley said she let it go and was able to move past it. Sure, the Jobs 4 Life is focused on employment, but that includes everything from their resume to the psychological issues that might be holding them back.
“By dealing with (my mother’s) mental illness for so long, I really felt like it held me back a whole lot.” Ashley said. “I wanted to move to New York, but my mom had this whole flip out in her head, so I didn’t get it go.”
It was a release for Ashley to be able to talk about her upbringing and assault, and now that she’s spoken about it, it doesn’t control her anymore.
“I just feel like I can be doing a lot more with myself, and I did have to raise myself a lot, and I did have to be a parent to my parent a lot,” Ashley said.
Soft-spoken Eboni might be the last person you’d ever expect to be unemployed. She’s polite and graceful with immaculate posture. Everything about her — from her hair to her outfit — is in just the right place. At first glance, you’d probably place her as a teacher or maybe someone who works at a bank who is really good at keeping her cool with wacky customers.
But, behind that perfect hair, is a woman like so many others who lost herself in the middle of raising kids. She stopped being Eboni the powerful woman and turned into Eboni, the mother.
“It was at a time in my life to where I wanted to start putting myself first,” Eboni said. “I’ve always been the type of person to … do things for everybody else, and I kind of like lost my way.”
She has two teenage boys and devoted most of her life to being a military wife for her now-ex husband. After years as a stay-at-home-mom, Eboni decided it was time to take control over her life. She reinvested in some of her passions and is looking for a place of employment that will help her figure out who she is as a woman, not just a mother or wife.
Eboni has had her share of hardships, too. Her then-husband was one of the first soldiers deployed after September 11, and she gave birth to her son while her husband was in Iraq.
“I always took a backseat to other things that were going on,” Eboni said.
Tab and Angie
Women are lucky in a sense because we have a lot of things that bind us, no matter what race, religion or income. Our kids matter a lot. Sometimes we don’t understand men. Our minds tend to go a million miles an hour, especially when we’re trying to sleep. Tab and her mentor, Angie, an attorney in Huntsville, are no different. They don’t come from the same area, and they’ve had a lot of different life experiences, but they still relate over the mental struggles of being a woman.
Before the Jobs 4 Life class on Monday night, they got together at the library for even more girl talk.
“We talk about common struggles,” Angie said.
“Like on a day-to-day, dealing with depression and anxiety every day,” Tab added.
Tab has recently gone through a period of deep depression, and that’s something Angie said she’s definitely experienced and overcome in the past.
Tab is originally from Nashville, where she also grew up with a mentally unstable mother — Tab’s mother was schizophrenic. She knows her mother loved her, but it was hard to grow up being a parent to her parent. When her mother died, Tab moved to Huntsville to get a fresh start.
“I couldn’t be down there anymore in the house,” Tab said about her childhood home in Nashville.
Starting over wasn’t that easy, though. She had some rough years — her father died on her youngest daughter’s birthday, and one of her sons was diagnosed with autism. At one point, all four children were going to different schools, meaning Tab would spend more than an hour every morning and every evening in drop-off and pick-up lines. Most bosses are understanding, but finding a job that works around a three-hour gap every day was difficult.
Tab is raising strong children — her daughter is a middle-school football player — but Tab still wants to be a good example for them. Tab was a teenage mother who didn’t finish high school, so Angie helped her find a program for people like her, who earned all their class credits but didn’t take the graduation exit exam.
After Jobs 4 Life
Sure, there are things these women want to be when they finish the program. Ashley wants to be a counselor. Eboni is thinking about a career in culinary arts. Tab loved working at an assisted living home and is looking to go back to something like that.
More than that, they want their kids to see them finish something.
“I just want to prove to my kids that, even though I’m doing OK and I’m taking care of you OK, you can always do better,” Ashley said. “Don’t settle for right here when you can go higher.”
Tab’s oldest child is a senior in high school and is about to graduate. She wanted to go back and prove that she could graduate as well. She didn’t opt for the much-easier GED. Instead, she’s going back to get the full diploma.
Possibly the most heart-warming part of the Jobs 4 Life students is that they all want to give back. It would be understandable that someone would want to get a better job so they could get better stuff — maybe a new house, some better healthcare or just some new clothes. However, all three women mentioned they want to better themselves so they can give back to the community. Ashley wants to mentor girls from ages 8 to 15. Eboni would like to work with people who have drug or alcohol problems. Tab wants to mentor other people who are in her position.
It won’t be easy. Although the economy has bounced back a bit, it’s still a cut-throat world out there when you’re job searching. Still, if anyone can do it, these three women can. Their drive and endearing personalities, coupled with the lessons they’ve learned at Jobs 4 Life, will make them forces to be reckoned with.
You just wait and see.