By EVE NEWMAN
LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) _ Clutching tissues and smiling at their children, seven women commemorated the start of a new chapter in their lives during a CLIMB Wyoming graduation ceremony.
As friends, family and others looked on, the cap-and-gown-clad graduates celebrated the completion of intensive training they started in February, designed to give them skills to achieve self-sufficiency as single mothers.
For graduate Amanda Schneider, finishing CLIMB Wyoming felt like starting anew.
“I just need to be the parent I’m supposed to be and not rely on somebody else to help raise my child,” she said.
A few months ago, she was working two jobs and living with her mother. Now she’s interviewing for long-term positions and plans to move out this summer with her 2-year-old son.
Even better, she’s “100 times more mature” than she was a few months ago.
“I’ve gained some independence that I never had. I’ve taken these steps that I never would have taken, ever in a million years,” Schneider said.
CLIMB Wyoming operates in six communities around Wyoming and has been in Laramie since 2004. The program provides comprehensive training for participants, including job training in areas where local positions are available.
In Laramie, that’s mainly office careers, said program director Katie Hogarty. Participants meet several times a week for training in hard and soft jobs skills. They learn how to operate various computer programs such as QuickBooks and Excel while also learning etiquette and ethics.
They also receive training in areas such as parenting, nutrition, relationships and even self-defense. Plus, they receive individual and group counseling to prepare for long-term success.
Hogarty said the CLIMB office works with employers to fit graduates into positions that match their skills, interests and personalities. The office reimburses employers for the first eight weeks of wages, payroll taxes and workers’ compensation when they hire a graduate, in exchange for supportive on-the-job training.
“We are matchmakers,” she said.
So far, one of the spring’s graduates has secured a job. Several have conducted interviews with the city of Laramie, Albany County and Albany County Public Library, among others.
Long-term prospects are good. Seventy-five percent of local graduates are employed two years after they finish the program, compared to fewer than half beforehand.
On average, incomes increase from $11,300 a year before the program to $21,500 two years later. Food stamp participation drops from 62 percent to 39 percent.
Hogarty praised this spring’s group for their commitment to each other. They shared bikes, beds, meals and rides. They took care of each other’s children, provided emotional support and laughed together.
“Sometimes when you’re alone and a single mom, life feels really isolated,” Hogarty said. “This group has really taken advantage of that peer support.”
As she called each graduate’s name, Hogarty pointed out strengths the woman exhibited during the program, such as calmness, perseverance, grace or leadership.
“This group has been such a gift to be a part of,” she said.
Schneider said the evening was bittersweet.
“I’m feeling every emotion there could possibly be. I’m holding back tears,” she said.
When asked about the motivation for joining and finishing CLIMB, she didn’t hesitate with her answer _ he was wearing a green stocking cap and climbed into her lap partway through the program.
“I’m ready to start bettering our lives,” she said.