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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The Knox County Christian Women's Job Corps applied for the Samaritan Award independently of its Nashville sister and also became a finalist. Its A Hand Up for Women program began three years ago and boasts 28 graduates. Here are the stories of two of them:
Four years ago Tammy Edwards, 38, sat in a jail cell facing charges of possessing five ounces of crack cocaine with the intent to sell. After posting bail, Edwards returned home to find her house being robbed by her drug dealers: "I got robbed on a Thursday and went to church that Sunday. It was time for a change."
The pastor at New Covenant Baptist Church referred her to A Hand Up for Women, and she entered the program in February 2003. Two nights a week students study biblical lessons and learn basic job and interpersonal skills. For the first half of the 20-week term, the women read through parts of Angela Thomas' book, Living Your Life as a Beautiful Offering, and in the second half of the class instructors cover topics like "Professional Phone Manners" and "Budgeting Basics."
Since completing the program Edwards has professed Christian faith, quit using drugs, become a certified nursing assistant, lost 80 pounds, and gotten married. A Hand Up connected her to her first job as a home caregiver and continues to find clients for her. She currently provides home care for a member of A Hand Up's board of directors.
On Sept. 3 Edwards will be "a 3-year-old Christian," and she thanks her mentor, Harriet Hodge, for providing her with a sense of family for the first time in her life: "She is like a sister to me. I know her family and we get together at least once a week. It feels so good to be loved by somebody who loves me for me, who won't turn her back on me."
Jani McCarter looks like an unassuming Southern belle with short blond locks perfectly curled and the apples of her rosy cheeks reflecting the pink hue of her cotton sweater. Her sweet, slow Tennessee drawl rises and falls like a song as she talks about her passions for decorating and cooking. The subject turns to her late husband, Ken, and her gray-blue eyes suddenly cloud over, her face visibly changed by a wave of grief.
"Ken was my entire heart, my gift from God," she said. "He was this big strong football player. . . . If I was ever worried, I would lay my head on his chest and hear his heartbeat, and I knew that everything would be OK." She paused and raised her hand as tears filled her eyes: "After he was diagnosed with cancer, my big strong football player went to weighing nothing, and then he left us."
In August 1999, Ken and Jani McCarter were living with their three children-twin daughters and a son-on a small farm in Sevierville, Tenn. Ken owned a successful mechanical engineering business in East Knoxville and was bringing in a six-figure salary. The McCarters were in the process of switching health insurance providers when Ken was diagnosed with colon cancer that quickly spread to the rest of his organs and ruptured his liver: "We had to sell almost everything we owned to pay for his treatment."
When her husband died on March 31, 2002, with hospital bills still unpaid, McCarter lost her home, her possessions, and even her friends: "People have a hard time being kind to widows. They are afraid they will say something wrong, and I think being around me after Ken died made people feel vulnerable. My friends all had husbands Ken's age, and they couldn't face the fact that life is not a guarantee. They think being a widow is contagious."
She became "desperately broken" and deeply depressed: "I still had my faith, and I never considered taking my own life, but to say I didn't want to live would be an understatement. I would go to Ken's grave all the time and just pray to God to take me home. My children were all married at that point, and I knew they would have happy lives with or without me. What reason did I have to live anymore?"
McCarter entered A Hand Up in Knoxville. Unlike most of the women in the program, she already had a job-as an administrative assistant at the county attorney's office-but knew she needed to begin a program to "help her get her life back together." At first McCarter said she wasn't sure she could stick it out, but after the third week in class she had begun laughing again for the first time since Ken's death.
Her mentor, Brenda Kearns, was "her cheerleader" through the grieving process, and "spending time with the three other women in my class two nights a week truly made me realize that there could be more to my life than grief. It was like being in an airplane when you break through the clouds and finally begin to see the sunshine peek through, and you realize that God has been there all along."
When an administrative assistant's position opened up at A Hand Up, McCarter applied, and in July she celebrated her one-year work anniversary:
"I love being able to pat these women on the back and touch their lives. I've been desperate and felt alone like they have. I've struggled, maybe not with drugs or alcoholism, but I know loneliness, and I can help. We're all sisters here."