Link to ARC home page.

Leveraging Hope: The New Opportunity School for Women

by Fred D. Baldwin

Photo Gallery

"They taught me how to get my education. I wanted it so bad."

That's George Lakes talking about her experience with the New Opportunity School for Women (NOSW), based in Berea, Kentucky. She learned about NOSW, which provides training and moral support for low-income women who have limited education and few, if any, marketable skills, in 1992. The diploma she received there hangs on her wall today--her first, but not her last. In 1999 she earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Kentucky, and after that she completed a master's degree in social work.

Lakes's level of accomplishment is exceptional, but her story resembles those told by many of the 470 low-income women who have completed a three-week residential program at NOSW since the organization's beginning 18 years ago. These women arrive at the school with problems not measurable by income alone. They leave with a new appreciation of their own abilities.

A recent survey shows that three out of four of NOSW's graduates are either working or back in school, or both. Reliance on public assistance is dramatically down and health insurance coverage dramatically up. "We're proud," says Kim Short, NOSW executive director, "to have a part in the advancement of our region through the development of one of its greatest resources, strong Appalachian women. From our experience, these women are an investment with a very high rate of return."

The NOSW story began in 1987, when Jane Stephenson received a call from a friend on behalf of a woman thrown abruptly on the job market by a recent divorce. Married when she was a teenager, the woman had zero employment experience and very little knowledge of the world beyond her family. Did Stephenson know of a program to help her learn to cope?

Stephenson was then helping the University of Kentucky in Lexington develop programs for students resuming their formal education long after high school, but neither she nor her husband (the late John Stephenson, then president of Berea College) knew how to respond. And they realized that countless Appalachian women faced similar situations. After Stephenson received that call, by a coincidence that seemed providential, a foundation executive looking for innovative ideas called her husband. Stephenson wrote a grant proposal that won startup funding for NOSW. For the next 12 years she worked to build the program, serving as its executive director (and, most of the time, its only employee).

The program now conducts two residential seminars a year, one in the summer and one in the winter. Press releases to approximately 140 Appalachian newspapers generate some applications. So do short NOSW workshops held throughout the year on topics like resume writing and personal finance. These workshops are conducted at employment centers or public assistance offices--or anywhere low-income women are likely to be found. Funding comes from donations, fundraising projects, and grants, including support from the Appalachian Regional Commission. Most enrollees come from Kentucky, but a handful come from North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Achieving Results

There are always more applicants than slots, so acceptance is based both on need and on evidence of the ability to benefit from the NOSW experience. Most participants are in their 30s and early 40s. The idea is to enroll women young enough to benefit from a fresh start in the job market but old enough to recognize the consequences of life-changing decisions. Applicants must either have earned a GED or be very close to earning one. Women with high school diplomas or some college are also accepted, but those who already have college degrees are not.

"The thing that always strikes me is how smart they are," Stephenson says about the school's participants. She adds, "And no one has recognized that."

Sit in on a few classes at NOSW and talk with a few of the women, and you understand what Stephenson means. Some participants are shy and hesitate to volunteer comments during a group discussion, but they're focused, funny, and obviously bright. But they seem to be amazed that anyone respects them or what they have to say. ""It's given me the courage and self-esteem to know that I'm intelligent," says Lisa Maxwell, who lives in Pike County, Kentucky, "after being told for so many years that I wasn't."

"Your background follows you wherever you go," says Debbie Perdue, from Monticello, Kentucky. "Sometimes it can leave good impressions and sometimes bad impressions. They [the NOSW staff] seem to have decided only to look at the good ones."

Perdue's comment sums up how NOSW achieves its results. At first glance, its crowded course schedule seems a curricular tossed salad: a base of practical classes--resume writing, computer basics, and job interviewing skills--seasoned with a smattering of unusual ones: public speaking, self-defense, and Appalachian literature.

The less conventional courses may well be the more important. Take self-defense. The emphasis is on avoiding trouble, not combat skills, but the women welcome being told that they're entitled to defend themselves if necessary. They also feel less vulnerable after even brief coaching in self-defense basics.

If there are core elements in the curriculum, they're the Appalachian literature classes taught by Stephenson and a creative writing class taught by Gurney Norman, a novelist who also happens to be the individual whose call to Stephenson led to the creation of NOSW. The women read and discuss such novels as Wilma Dykeman's The Tall Woman, Gwyn Rubio's Icy Sparks, and Norman's Kinfolks: The Wilgus Stories. They're also given a suggested reading list that includes nonfiction like Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands, as well as Stephenson's own book, Courageous Paths: Stories of Nine Appalachian Women, a collection of stories told by NOSW graduates in their own words.

Far from being a frill, the exposure to Appalachian literature teaches a crucial lesson: one can confront poverty, isolation, and "hillbilly" stereotypes without being defeated by them. The creative writing classes encourage the women to tell their own stories, suggesting that a problem clearly understood is a problem already half solved.

"I've been blown away by the literature here," says Dora Clem, from Harlan County, Kentucky. "I found that I love to sit down with a good book. Before I came here I didn't give much thought to where I came from. Now I'm proud of where I came from."

NOSW also provides job-related experience via internships in local businesses and service organizations. For many women, this is their first exposure to non-menial employment, and for some, to any paid employment at all. Short and Stephenson both praise the cooperation they get from Berea agencies and firms.

Janet Tronc, buyer for the Berea College Bookstore, explains why. Several years ago she accepted an NOSW intern. Soon Tronc had agreed to serve on the NOSW advisory board, and in 2003 she became board president. "You can't be in this program halfheartedly," she says. "Once you hear these ladies come back and tell how successful they are, you watch this and just can't not be involved."

Carol Edney, executive assistant for the Berea Chamber of Commerce, says the chamber has worked with NOSW interns for several years. "Everybody's real nervous when they come in," she says, "but at the end they just bloom."

In 2003 Oprah Winfrey presented Jane Stephenson with a "Use Your Life Award" and contributed $100,000 from "Oprah's Angel Network" toward the school's computer lab, scholarship fund, and transportation needs, and a dental fund. Although Stephenson has raised roughly a million dollars in grants and donations across NOSW's history, funding remains a problem.

Promoting Community Work

Stephenson once asked a graduate student to review research on leadership training for women. She found extensive literature designed to help already successful women cope with "glass ceiling" problems, but nothing for low-income women. As a result, NOSW teaches participation in civic affairs, whether individually or as part of a board. Two messages are explicit: you should give something back to your community; and, when you do, you can make a difference. Short says the most recent NOSW survey indicates that 50 percent of graduates are active in community work, and 87 percent are registered to vote.

"There is no doubt," Stephenson says, "that there has been an economic impact. Women who have never worked are now working. There's a secondary impact we don't know as much about as I wish we did--the influence these women have on their children and grandchildren. They've watched their mothers study and read. And they now have a new role model."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
September 2005