Ten years ago, Ebony Dendy was a senior investment analyst in the healthcare field, with almost a decade of experience, and the single mother of a one-year-old son, Bryce, when she was suddenly laid off.
Her life turned on a dime. She was forced to give up her car and seek state-funded health insurance for her son.
"It was devastating," she said. "I was very upset, I was very hurt, very disgruntled, I was scared, I had lost my confidence. When I came to the program, I was very broken, very angry at corporate America. I was just in a bad space, and didn't think I would ever see the light again."
She heard about the New Choices program, and needed to get out of the house, so she signed up.
As she got to know her classmates, she was amazed at what they had survived: job loss; 20 years of being married to an alcoholic; the long grind of single motherhood on a budget, and so on.
The class bonded, and Ebony realized how much heartache, and how much strength, they all had in common.
"That was one of the other really powerful things about the program, is that you meet other women, younger and older, who are going through the same thing, due to different circumstances," she said. "That's what I know your program can do: lift people up and forward."
The exercises in the programs tapped into the psychological sources of her frustrated feelings about her career, and pointed her toward big-picture shifts she could make in her attitude that would help her break out of it.
Ebony completed the Techniques for an Empowered Workforce certificate with DDI in 2010, then found a job doing business consulting with a technology company, Confluence. Meanwhile, her academic achievement progressed as well. In 2012, she earned a master’s degree in international business at Point Park University.
Today, Ebony's son is 10, and she is a supervisor in IT at BNY Mellon. They have been through a lot of change together, but even more good things lie ahead.
"I'm constantly growing," she said. "No matter the age or stage in life I'm at, I'm always looking to learn something new."
Sajida Nieves grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, in a very conservative Islamic community where most families homeschooled their children and had multiple wives, and girls as young as nine were forced into arranged marriages. Sajida was the second of 12 children; on her sixteenth birthday, her father brought home her first suitor, but she had begun to absorb outside cultural influences, and wanted to go to college instead.
At 20, she had earned an associate's degree in liberal arts from Genesee Community College and began her career as an early childhood educator. She began getting to know an Islamic studies student with progressive ideals; a year later, he was studying in Iran, and she followed and married him there. A month later, she was pregnant with their first son, Yusuf, now 19. The couple then returned to the U.S., and Sajida earned a bachelor's degree in Spanish at SUNY Brockport.
The next five years brought a second son, Naftali, now 14, and a shift in Sajida’s husband. He pressured her to dress and act more conservatively, which left her feeling restricted, isolated — and concerned his controlling attitude would influence their sons. She began to consider divorce, but her faith didn't allow her to instigate it or take her sons with her.
In 2009, she found New Choices, and learned budgeting techniques that made all the difference, she said: “The New Choices program really helped me sort out my confusion, and find my own voice. No one had ever really asked me what I wanted in life, and that was one of the things they asked: Where do you want to go, and how are you going to get there?”
For five years, Sajida and her husband co-parented in the same house, while she worked as a caregiver to save up her own downpayment. Enduring constant pressure from her husband and her family to stay, Sajida kept her eyes on the prize. Her goal: to study the lives of childhood educators, especially ones from marginalized populations—to document their journeys, and help them shine.
Today, Sajida is a homeowner, co-parenting two teenage sons. She recently finished our Customer Service First Class program, and was hired at the Cyert Center for Early Education at Carnegie Mellon University. Now, she plans to study applied developmental psychology. In her spare time, she practices photography, and loves to capture the beauty that makes each woman unique.
When Tanisha Thomas signed up for New Choices, she was hurting physically, emotionally, and financially. She was going through health problems, which made it difficult to work. She was also at the end of a bad marriage filled with financial abuse. She felt ready to take the leap and leave, but didn't know how she would survive.
Cleaning out an old storage box, she found the number for New Choices--and dialed.
As luck would have it, a new class was about to begin. With no money, she decided she had nothing to lose, and enrolled: "I said, 'I'm going to go, and I'm going to go from there. This is going to be a new chapter, the new beginning of my life.'"
She started class, while recovering from one surgery, then had a second one.
"I would be in excruciating pain -- I was in class sometimes in pain, but I kept coming," she said. "I was determined." At the end of the program, she got an award for perfect attendance.
Meanwhile, she had discovered she was about to lose her home. Her husband hid their coming eviction from her until it was almost too late -- but after seeking help from Neighborhood Legal Services through the Women’s Empowerment Initiative, a court appearance bought them more time.
When Tanisha left their apartment, that was the end of her marriage. She scrambled to find a new place to live for herself and her daughter, Aysaiah, then 13.
Her old landlord blamed her for the eviction, causing HUD to turn down their housing request, but she prayed -- and HUD called back, saying the accusations had not been documented, and offering her a chance to move in the next day.
Tanisha established a new home with her daughter and completed our Customer Service First Class program, and started working on a temporary basis for UPMC. After being re-hired for several temp assignments, she heard about a job fair where UPMC was one of the featured employers, and decided it was time to make it permanent. She dressed to impress and got there early, resume in hand.
Recruiters interviewed her on the spot, and within a few weeks, they called her with multiple offers. She chose to become a patient information coordinator at UPMC Mercy Hospital.
"I was able to make a choice," she said. "That's what I prayed for. I wanted to be able to choose where I work, I didn't want to feel like I was desperate and had no choices."
She reflects on what Nieves Stiker, her New Choices teacher, taught her: "Miss Nieves showed us how to tap into who we are, and the skills that we have to offer, believing that we all have something to offer to the world."
Yevgeniya "Jane" Updyke knew since she was 10 that someday, she would become a doctor. In her home country of Kazakhstan, Jane grew up going to work with her mother, a traumatologist and orthopedic surgeon. "Every night shift was remarkable," she said. "People were injured in car accidents, broken legs, broken backs, and broken arms.”
She became fascinated with their recovery. As she helped her mother, Jane learned empathy, as well as an ambitious drive for accomplishment and self-sufficiency. When it came time to choose a career path, the decision wasn't difficult.
"I just knew who I wanted to be," she said.
She chose the ear, nose and throat specialty because it would leave room for a family.
In 2008, she attained a scholarship to attend a public health masters program at Kansas State University that would complement her medical degree at home in Kazakhstan and allow her to climb the career ladder of hospital administration.
But once in school in Kansas, she met her husband, Josh, a medical robotics engineer, and plans shifted. They married in 2014 -- which began the two-year process of earning her green card.
While settling into married life, they wrestled with intensive requirements to prove they were a couple, competing with hundreds of thousands of others for their spot on the decision list. After lots of waiting and invasive questions, their paperwork was rejected.
"That was one of the hardest experiences," she said. "We had to share phone records, emails, pictures, everything.”
After spending over $10,000 in legal fees, they succeeded, but when it was over, Jane still had to rebuild her career, in a new country where her medical license wasn’t valid anymore.
She came to Pennsylvania Women Work as she was grappling with the decision of whether to try to transfer her credentials to practice medicine. She has a 10-year-old son from a previous marriage, and is expecting another child this winter.
After attending New Choices earlier this year, Jane found a position that bridges the gap perfectly: She is an international referral liaison with UPMC. Part translator, part patient advocate, Jane works primarily with Russian-speaking patients and helps make sure they get the services they need. The work is fascinating, and it's good to be back in a hospital, she said.
Plans for the future include beginning a psychology masters program this fall, and selecting a name for the baby on the way that works in both English and Russian, she said:
"I have pretty good possibilities right now.”
The Yvonne Zanos Women of Courage awards are presented in memory of our celebrity host,