Tracey Graves used to try to avoid people, avoid eye contact, keep to herself. A high school dropout, a single mother, and a battered woman, she said her self-esteem was so low that she wanted to be invisible.
Then the North Toledo resident began going to classes at Women Blessing Women, a nonprofit agency founded by a group of Catholic nuns, and the center turned her life around.
Ms. Graves, 45, earned her high school equivalency degree in December, is making plans to attend Owens Community College this fall, and is getting adjusted to married life after her wedding a few weeks ago.
“I’m happier than I have been since I was a girl,” she said with a smile. “I’m very much happier.”
Someday, Ms. Graves said, she wants to be a counselor and help women who struggle with low self-esteem and other problems that she experienced — and overcame.
And if she had the money, she said, she’d write a check to Women Blessing Women in hopes that her donation would keep the agency open.
But the reality is that Women Blessing Women plans to close next month after 14 years of providing training, support, and encouragement to one of the most neglected segments of the community: poor single mothers in the central city.
The faith-based agency lists its typical participant as 28 years old, head of household, mother of three who became pregnant as a teenager and dropped out of high school in 10th grade, now tests at 8th-grade level, has little or no job experience, and lives below the poverty line.
Women Blessing Women has focused on helping these women get their GEDs to prepare them for college and employment.
Leaders of the agency say the money just isn’t there to stay open. Despite a modest annual budget of $113,000, the agency has lost some of its key government grants and the private foundations don’t have the level of funding to support all the local nonprofit agencies in need.
“I’m sad about it, but I’m looking at it from the viewpoint that it was a great success,” said Sister Nancy Mathias, an Ursuline nun and ex-officio board member who was involved with Women Blessing Women from the start. “We touched the lives of many, many women, helped them get their GEDs. Some have gone on to college, some have gotten jobs. And when we touch the women, we touch the children and make their lives better. And when that goes well, we touch the greater community.”
The origins of Women Blessing Women date to March, 1995, when more than 100 local nuns met with the late Bishop James Hoffman to discuss how they could best use their gifts to help the most disadvantaged people in Toledo.
Three years later, as a result of that meeting and follow-up talks, Women Blessing Women began serving people in Toledo’s poorest neighborhoods, mostly in the ZIP Codes 43604, 43608, and 43620.
At first WBW worked with the local shelters Aurora House, Bethany House, Sparrow’s Nest, Project Mustard Seed, and Family House, providing literacy training, GED classes, and spiritual guidance.
The center opened an office in a storefront on Lagrange Street in Toledo’s Vistula neighborhood in March, 2000, then moved into the rectory of the former St. Mary’s Parish on Page Street, across the street from Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center, in November, 2003. At its peak, Women Blessing Women served 441 women in 2008. Most years, the number of participants was between 200 and 300, Sister Nancy said.
Glenda Hayes, executive director, said she has seen numerous success stories at Women Blessing Women, including clients who got their GEDs, graduated from college, and landed good-paying jobs.
The center holds an empowerment workshop every day where the women get together to talk about their lives and encourage one another. At a recent meeting, Ms. Graves joined Ms. Hayes and about a dozen others in a cozy, wood-trimmed conference room in the former rectory.
Sherri Tilman told the group she was about to give up on her dream of getting her GED. “I have tried so hard, and that’s the killing part,” Ms. Tilman said, teary-eyed.
“Don’t give up,” Ms. Hayes said softly. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” she said, quoting a Bible verse.
“I pray,” Ms. Tilman said. “I pray and I pray and I pray and I pray. But it’s so hard [to earn a GED].”
“You’re not doing it alone,” Ms. Hayes said. “Yes, you’re doing the work, but God is in the midst of it. We may get knocked down, but we get back up. It’s hard, but it’s reachable. Only if you stop, then it’s not reachable.”
“You can do this,” Ms. Graves added. “I believe I was the worst, most negative person in this room. I felt like I was having a breakdown. But I did it. I failed the first time by 70 points but then I took it again and got 100 points more than I needed to pass. So when you get down, think of my face with my goofy little smile.”
She grinned at Ms. Tilman and her mood lifted. She laughed and a staff member gave her a hug.
Ms. Hayes, who is in job-search mode with the agency’s closing, said she and the staff and center volunteers want to continue helping clients who are in the program, meeting with them at local libraries to prepare for the GED tests. “We’re working to make sure we can still tutor them during the transition,” she said.
Contact David Yonke at: email@example.com or 419-724-6154.