Program helps 'displaced' homemakers identify skills, set goals

"For 20 years, I was Mrs. Joseph Weaver -- my identity was all wound up with being someone's wife, someone's mother.Now, I have to learn to be Mary Weaver." The woman making this simple and profound discovery is a red-haired, middle-aged divorcee on Maryland's Eastern Shore, but she echoes the voices of women around the nation whose major source of financial and emotional support is gone as a result of separation, divorce, death, or disability of a spouse.

Some four million former homemakers fall into the "displaced" category, according to a 1979 Department of Labor estimate. Since 1975, when the first Displaced homemaker Assistance Act was passed in California, a variety of programs and laws have been set up to address their needs.

Most of the programs pop up in urban centers. "In Philadelphia, where I come from, they have organizations like Parents Without Partners and vocational rehabilitation," Mrs. Weaver says. "But try to find something like that in Easton. . . ."

We are sitting around a fireplace at Chesapeake College -- small community school near Wye Mills, Md. -- talking with women who have "made it through" divorce. All of them are participants in a 15-month-old model program called New Horizons; all of them are there largely through a gift of love from a woman named Jane Myer.

Mrs. Myer is a walking testimony to survival, a silverblonde with a flat, New Jersey accent and a habit of hugging the people she talks with. She was a displaced homemaker in 1975 when she came to the college and enrolled in abnormal psychology "because I felt abnormal." Regaining a positive self-image

It's a common feeling among the displaced, who are burdened with a self-image of inadequacy and failure. "I was brought up to believe that the woman is responsible for making the marriage succeed," one explains, "so when my marriage failed, I felt Im had failed."

Mrs. Myer pats her reassuringly and says, "I was like all these women. I've been through the whole thing -- the drunk, the beaten wife -- so I have a great empathy for these homemakers.

"When they first come here, they're like crying bowls of jelly. The first thing they tell you is. . . ."

A displaced-homemaker chorus fills the room with the often-heard refrain, "I can't do anything!"

Mrs. Myer nods, adding quickly that "I discovered that any homemaker who can fix her toaster or repair her roof -- and I did lots of things like that -- that all homemakers already havem skills. What they need is help in identifying skills."

That is the welcome mat she uses for getting the displaced into her program. But because going to a college campus -- even one as a low key as Chesapeake -- can seem too intimidating to rural women, Mrs. Myer takes her job skills identification seminar out to the five counties served by the program.

"I get on the radio, put ads in the paper, talk to ministers, and harangue everyone to get the word out," she says brightly. Most of the women come through word of mouth, though. "Some of them are just too scared to leave the house, so I go to them and tell them, hey, we've got a good program here, why don't you come on out?"

Many are shackled without transportation, so Mrs. Myer organizes carpools and picks up "about half of them myself."

Once she gets them to that first meeting, she can start unveiling the skills they have already accumulated, suggesting ways to make those skills marketable. The unwritten purpose of the meeting, however, is to "develop a core of women who can give each other support," she says.

Donnie Lane, a young mother who came to the group through the efforts of her own mother (a displaced homemaker already enrolled in the reentry program) says of her fellow students, "we were of kindred spirit."

The "kindred spirit" seems to have a bonding effect on these women; they look like a cross between a teen-age slumber party and a family reunion. As each woman details the shock of her divorce and the problems it precipitated, arms reach out to her in a wave of compassion.

And as each speaks -- some timidly, some proudly -- of her accomplishments, the group cheers and smiles their palpable support.

Jane Myer runs these groups "for as long as they're needed," organizing meetings around various topics and speakers. "We give them assertiveness training -- all these women need it," she says, ticking off her list. "Then I've had speakers on consumer protection, temporary employment, interviewing techniques, how to start your own business, and so on."

She encourages the women to update their skills at the college, which offers one-year degrees in over a dozen subjects ranging from secretarial skills to heating and air-conditioner repair. College president provides support

About 70 women are now enrolled in these courses out of the college's 400 full-time students, says Robert C. Schleiger, college president and uprooted Nebraskan who came to the Eastern Shore "because my wife and I fell in love with the place."

Dr. Schleiger acts as the program's "wife," providing support and arranging the environment to meet the homemakers' needs. "When I took on the presidency on 1976," he begins, "we had a Title III grant which, in part, allowed us to identify the needs in the community.

"Jane was here in a work/study program, and walking around with a light over her head saying, 'What about me?'" he smiles. "We found that there is a large segment of women in the counties we serve who have been forced into the labor market through divorce, widowhood, or financial reasons. They need a salable skill or the chance to upgrade potentially marketable skills, so Jane developed this program to meet those needs."

Dr. Schleiger, meanwhile, sought and received a $12,000 grant from the Maryland Department of Human Resources, and New Horizons opened its doors in November 1979. The grant was recently renewed for $20,000, and Dr. Schleiger is also looking for private funding to "keep a good thing going."

He has also extended the college's early "so our students could be on campus a limited number of days. These women are widely dispersed, and transportation is quite a problem, so we wanted to cut back on the number of times they have to come here."

Many of the women are mothers, so the college's Early Childhood Development Program started a child-care center two years ago "primarily for the children of these girls," says Dr. Schleiger. The role of CETA

Another stumbling block for the displaced homemakers is money. "Many of them can't afford to go to school -- even a reasonably pricd school like Chesapeake," says Mrs. Myer, "so I found a few scholarships through local clubs and businesses, and talked the CETA counselors into funding them as well."

CETA provides funding for low-income, untrained people -- a group that often overlaps with displaced homemakers -- and pays both the college's bills and a minimum wage to the student.

Jean Beecher, a displaced homemaker with two teenage daughters, fits neatly into this pocket. She came to Chesapeake College last September and went through individual counseling with the New Horizon's group to identify her skills. "I'd done a little typing when I was younger, but I hadn't worked in years," she says with a trace of her Edinburgh accent.

Money was imperative in Mrs. Beecher's situation, so Mrs. Myer enrolled her in the college's secretarial program with CETA funds. But "walking into a room full of 18-and 19-year-old girls was really frightening," she says.

The room, set up by Sara Rodman, is "open 12 hours a day to make it easier for the displaced homemakers. All our individuals set their own hours and go at their own speed," Ms. Rudman says. "Each time they come, they look at the next lesson in the series and then type whatever it says to do. We have two people here at all times, to give them instant feedback when they finish their lesson."

Ms. Rodman says she prefers the "older ladies -- they're better students because they know exactly what they want. They try harder than the young ones and want to learn every piece of information you have to give them." Success of job-referral system

Ms. Rodman has a job referral system that would be the envy of any employment agency: "I get more jobs than I have people. I get calls from business people, and they all ask for someone with the maturity these women have to offer -- it helps, in an office situation."

For displaced homemakers in other college courses, Mrs. Myer has a variety of job-snaring aids. "We have a work/study program that allows the student to work as an apprentice in her own field. This gives her a little money and looks good on a resume."

Mrs. Myer also has "interview practice sessions" for the potential employees and a growing list of jobs from local businessmen, who she says "have been very supportive of this program."

She stresses that getting a job is only one direction available to the displaced homemaker. Some, who are comfortable enough financially, may not wish to enter the job market.

"But," says the displaced Mrs. Weaver, "they make us set goals -- where do we want to be six months from now, a year from now, five years from now. I decided I wanted to concentrate on my grandchildren, and I'm setting up my home so they can come and visit."

"Don't get the impression that we're rejecting homemaking," says Mrs. Myer. "I still think that being married and being a homemaker is the most important job there is -- it's the best job," she says to the group of nodding women. "But I'm not going to be browbeaten and have someone say I'm a failure because I'm not mar ried."

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