Unlocking the welfare trap. Education is the key, says Carol Sasaki, a former `welfare mother'

`PEOPLE said I was not capable. And then when I made it, they said I was an exception. There's a cruel irony to that,'' says Carol Sasaki, a former welfare mother who is now a PhD candidate in international studies. She says there are two common assumptions implicit here: one, that it takes a superwoman to get off welfare; the other, that ``those who are on welfare are there because they are too stupid or too lazy not to be.''

``What about all of us out there who are neither stupid, lazy, or superwomen, who desperately want to be part of the American Dream?'' she asks.

To help other people get out of the welfare trap, as she did, Ms. Sasaki founded H.O.M.E. (Helping Ourselves Means Education), a nonprofit organization dedicated to getting those who have escaped from poverty to tell those who need the information - teen mothers, the incarcerated, street kids, and potential dropouts, some farm wives, and displaced homemakers - how they did it. ``We consider them the experts, not the social workers,'' Sasaki says.

She describes H.O.M.E. (formerly based in Washington State, but now moving with Sasaki to Ohio) as a ``free communication channel and network. H.O.M.E. is not a program; we are creating an empty tube to communicate.'' The effort started three years ago as a grassroots project. ``We grew from 20 to 600 without any media,'' says Sasaki, adding that more than 14,000 people have shared information through H.O.M.E.'s newsletter and workshops.

Lecturing regularly takes her to various parts of the country. Sasaki has won national awards for her work, including the presidential Volunteer of the Year award and the Outstanding Individual in Human Services award from the Association for Human Development in Washington, D.C. But she considers the real basis of her expertise to be her many hours of conversation, over the past three years, with people who have made it from poverty to success.

According to Jule Sugarman, secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services in Washington State, ``She's been extremely successful in the state of Washington in convincing welfare mothers that there are real opportunities for them. And particularly that they have to do it on their own. She's just a real catalyst in getting things to move.''

The federal government has also recognized the effectiveness of her work. H.O.M.E. will soon receive an $85,000 grant from the Department of Health and Human Services.

WHEN Sasaki talks, the first thing she does is tell the story of her own life.

You would never think, to look at this vivacious woman in her early 30s, that she has had such a tragic past. A lonely child, sexually abused in her middle-class home, brutally teased at school, she ran away at the age of 13 and became a street kid. For a while she lived in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco with a striptease dancer and some Hell's Angels. ``Actually I was more protected there,'' she says.

SHE was considered mentally disabled, hospitalized despite her protestations. Seven years ago she had a child and went on welfare. She was living in the Seattle area in a low-rent apartment where she was attacked in front of her small son. Social workers wanted her to get a minimum-wage job, an idea she resisted because she would have had to leave her child alone at home. She tried to pass the GED (high-school diploma equivalency exam) and failed three times. ``I was considered hopeless,'' she says.

Since then, she earned a BA and an MA in international studies in three years at Washington State University in Pullman - getting straight A's. She has represented welfare mothers several times in meetings with President Reagan. She has been all over the world researching the abuse of women in third-world countries for her PhD, and all over the United States in connection with H.O.M.E. And her personal life took a happy turn when two years ago she married Glenn Sasaki, a molecular biologist.

The turning point for Sasaki came when she met a professional woman, an administrator, who had a past similar to hers. ``That haunted me, knowing someone who had made it,'' she says. Seeing somebody else who had succeeded gave her the impetus to enroll in a community college and begin her climb out of poverty.

Now, having succeeded herself, she has a driving need to help others by showing that it's possible. Thus H.O.M.E. - and the difficult decision to speak up about the tragic facts of her own life. ``Unless I'm honest about my past, people are going to think I'm too stupid, I'm too lazy. How precious it is to use the thing that was hidden, to use that past as a jewel, an expertise, instead of that thing we hide.''

Sasaki's audiences are disparate - but all listen with rapt attention. She talks to professors of public policy at the Nelson A. Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy in Albany. She tells, in graphic detail, the story of a mother whose child is being sexually abused, but who can't leave her husband because she can neither support herself and her child, nor survive on welfare.

She tells coiffed and proper members of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women, which has taken on H.O.M.E. as a national project, that they must not turn their backs on their poorer sisters. ``If we don't help, who is going to?'' she asks.

She tells people who deal with women on welfare - ``intelligent, desperate women'' - that they must look at their clients differently. She tells welfare clients that they must look at themselves differently. She rejects the idea that women on welfare should get only minimal vocational training, leading to minimum-wage jobs. Women on welfare need good jobs, because by definition they are supporting families, she says.

She talks to kids who sport dangling earrings, jeans, and K-mart clothes, chewing gum and leaning back in their chairs in an ``I'm tough'' kind of way, and in the end has them giving her a standing ovation and cheering for going back to school and getting a college education.

One of the main activities of H.O.M.E., in addition to speeches and workshops, is a newsletter that features anonymous letters from women and men who have escaped from abusive or seemingly hopeless situations and gone on to lead productive lives. In a recent newsletter an abused woman who had been on welfare, and has now been on the dean's list at her school for two out of three quarters, writes, ``I want to thank you, Carol, because you are the reason I chose to go to college.''

People usually describe what H.O.M.E. does as networking. ``What's missing by calling it a network is the inspiration of what we do by life example,'' says Sasaki. ``We are in essence an inspiration network. The problem of duplicating it is that it comes from the grass roots. In that there's a magic.''

Advice for those who want to get off welfare

Carol Sasaki offers concrete advice for those who want to break away from welfare:

Attitude: The difference between those who make it and those who don't is the ability to ``recover from small failures and turn to other options,'' she says. Come up with your own solutions: ``As long as we say, `We have the problem, and they're going to solve it,' we're giving them the power.''

Avenues: Entry-level jobs, corporate training programs, and education.

Networking: ``You can spend $5,000 to go to a business college and go to work at McDonald's to pay it off. Find out if businesses hire from that college.''

After you have gotten into school, write to top people in your field to find out such things as what you need to focus on to get a job later. While pursuing her degree in international studies, Ms. Sasaki included courses in agronomy after finding out from her contacts that this was an important field. ``I didn't decide by looking at an occupational handbook.''

This is also a way to make contacts for later jobs - ``while I have the guise of being a student and wanting their lofty wisdom instead of wanting their job and their money.'' Start lining up a job as soon as you start your program; don't wait until near the end.

Financial aid: Since 68.7 percent of all students receive financial aid, why shouldn't women on welfare? Just be sure that your degree will be able to pay for itself when you graduate.

What kind of degree: Applied degrees in a particular vocation are usually not transferable to other schools. If that particular job fails, as sometimes happens, you are back to ground zero. Take a look at courses that are transferable. Also consider tele-courses (offered via television) and correspondence courses (check with your state university to see if they offer correspondence courses or independent study degrees). These can vary considerably, so be sure the one you are taking is a good one.

Don't rule out private schools; they cost more, but you get more money in grants. Most women on welfare are told they can only apply to one- or two-year programs. But many one-year colleges are extremely expensive. Carol Sasaki went off welfare, got a BA and a master's degree, paying for day care, for about $8,000; the business degree she had been urged to take would have cost her about $5,000. Many women go off welfare (leaving the kids on), go to a four-year school, and combine financial aid with work study. A few states permit you to stay on welfare while studying at a four-year school.

Problems: H.O.M.E. invites people to let it know about problems. ``That's what the newsletter is about,'' explains Sasaki. The address for H.O.M.E. is 6310 Riverside Drive, Dublin OH 43017.

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