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NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Noses scrunched, eyes squinted, the four women stared at the sheets of paper in front of them. One woman with waist-long blonde hair cupped her face in her hands and shook her head, puzzled.
Of different ages and races, the women meet for two hours each Thursday in a classroom filled with the smell of brewing coffee and the flicker of a fluorescent light in the corner. Instructors at the Christian Women's Job Corps (CWJC) in Nashville drill them in reading, math, and computer skills in preparation for GED exams.
The CWJC assignment this week: Mark the unfamiliar words in a brief biography of Harriet Tubman. The sentence, a quotation from Tubman, read "They had to go through ordie."
"Ord-Ordie?" asked Iesha Brown, a 24-year-old mother of one. "Teacher, I don't have a clue what that word means."
Reading instructor Betsy Watson's response eased the tense lines on the students' faces. "I don't believe I've ever heard that word before in my life!" she said. The students began to chuckle. Watson explained that the text probably should have read "or die."
Crisis averted: It was only a typo.
These relieved students were four of the 150 women Nashville CWJC serves each year with the aid of 250 volunteers who act as job coaches, mentors, child-care workers, or instructors. The CWJC's Downtown Ministry Center offers computer and GED classes, one-on-one job skills coaching, Bible study, child care, and mentoring.
Nashville CWJC began in 1997 as a program of the Woman's Missionary Union-a missionary affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention-to equip working poor women with employment and life skills. The first organization of its kind in Tennessee, CWJC maintains seven sites in the state and nearly 200 nationwide.
Becky Sumrall, who has served as the executive director at CWJC Nashville for the past six years, said that the ministry has a 93 percent success rate, with success defined broadly as a student staying in the program until graduation and accomplishing of a goal such as finding a job or getting a better one, or earning a GED.
The graduation rate is so high because not everyone can enroll. After conducting a two-part personal interview with each program applicant-first by phone, then in person-Sumrall decides whether that person is ready for the program, should wait before taking classes, or needs to go to another organization.
"I am very honest with the women, and I tell them, 'We are not going to give you a handout, but we do want to help you change,'" said Sumrall. "From that point it becomes clear if they are truly ready to make changes in their life. Sometimes they just aren't ready yet, and that's when I'll tell them to take care of some issues in their life and we'll call them next semester. If I don't believe that we're the right program for them, I'll refer them to an organization that will meet their needs."
CWJC models the roles of both mentor and mentoree after the biblical story of Naomi and Ruth: Mentors become friends, supporters, encouragers, and virtual family members. Sumrall interviews each mentor, who then goes through a four-hour training session and an extensive background check before being assigned to a student.
Sharon Hansen is in her first year as a CWJC mentor. Her mentoree (called a "merea" at CWJC from the Hebrew word for "friendship"), Tanya McClure, is a certified nursing technician trying to earn her GED. Once a week, Sharon and Tanya meet to take a walk or go out to eat, and Sharon usually meets with Tanya before each Thursday night GED class to go over her homework with her.
"It's beautiful to see Tanya's confidence and self-esteem just blossoming as she goes to class and finds out that God is crazy about her!" said Sharon. "The merit in my own life is in knowing that the time and energy I'm devoting to Tanya's life will make a difference, and when she passes the GED, I will have seen firsthand what that kind of encouragement can do."
"Mentors have the pulse on where our women are spiritually," said Sumrall. "They work so closely on a weekly-sometimes daily-basis, and that's something you don't find with welfare. Here it's not only about meeting an immediate need. We are always going to reflect spiritually, emotionally, and mentally on issues."
Geraldine Planter, a 49-year-old certified nursing technician, was on the waiting list for one semester before she was able to enter the program. She began drinking at age 8, and her mother's death from alcoholism when Planter was 19 sent her spiraling into addictions with alcohol, drugs, and unhealthy relationships with men. After seeking help from Alcoholics Anonymous and finding a job at Imperial Manor, a nursing home in Madison, Tenn., Planter said she still felt like something was missing. That's when she contacted Becky Sumrall at CWJC.
"Math is a big struggle for me, and I knew I wouldn't be able to get my GED. After waiting a semester, I finally got the call that they had room for me here, and I began taking classes in May," said Planter. "I have an honest-to-God fear of mathematics. I cried, they embraced me, and they are helping me put God first, not fear first."
CWJC gave Planter a grant to pay for her furniture and electric bills. Aside from the physical and mental assistance she is gaining from the program, Planter said she believes the encouragement from the instructors and the weekly class prayer times are the greatest support for her during her recovery: "Every time I enter the building, I have new inspiration that God is seeing me through and will continue to see me through."
Already in 2006, CWJC Nashville has helped four women obtain their GEDs, and four more will take the GED exam in September. Five women have received promotions since graduating from CWJC this year. One woman, age 27, read a book for the first time in her life, and two 2006 program graduates are attending college.
Sumrall is adamant about not accepting any government funding-and the Nashville organization is growing so quickly that program leaders are looking to establish a new ministry location in neighboring Williamson County.