In 2017, Cheryl Baum had worked in human resources for the same company for 16 years, and her husband, Craig, had been there for 21. After a restructuring of the company’s leadership, Cheryl was told the week before Christmas that she no longer had a job.
A few minutes after she arrived at home, Cheryl was still reeling from the shock and had just told her children what had happened, when she was surprised again by Craig walking through the door -- he had just been let go as well.
Together, they told their two children, both of whom were in college and home for winter break, that they were both unemployed.
The couple pieced together a plan that would hold their family's finances together. Craig began offering financial services out of his father's insurance office. But at the start of 2018, Cheryl still needed a job -- and a reason to believe in herself again.
Cheryl and Craig decided they both needed a fresh perspective on their careers, and signed up for a New Choices class co-presented with Priority2Work at North Way Christian Community in Wexford.
Cheryl was amazed at how much they learned.
"As an HR professional, you think you know a lot about searching for jobs, but the whole dynamic has changed," she said. "It really helped us identify our strengths."
In April, Cheryl began the 3 Cups of Coffee® program, and was introduced to her mentor Julie Paden, of PNC Financial Services Group, who encouraged Cheryl to focus on what she loves doing, and is best at.
In May, using Julie's advice, Cheryl networked her way into a new job, as Supervisor of Benefits at Excela Health.
"It's a perfect fit," Cheryl said. "I have to credit my mentor in helping me figure that out."
Cheryl thanks Julie for helping her create a clear vision of her future.
"Julie made me feel good about myself, and gave me the courage to put myself out there," Cheryl said, expressing her gratitude for the 3 Cups of Coffee® program. "I just think it's fantastic -- I can't say enough about it. She was able to help me see that I still had value."
Thais Bentes grew up in Brazil, in Belém, a city near the Amazon, in a family of lawyers; after earning degrees in law and business administration at Brazilian universities, she began practicing law at her family's firm.
As political and economic circumstances in Brazil began to destabilize, Thais grew disillusioned with all the strife and corruption around her.
Also during this time, Thais was raising her son, Gabriel, now 6, by herself. In 2015, she decided to try to meet someone who could share her life, and through that process she met her now-husband, who happened to live in Pittsburgh.
As conversations led to visits and meeting both families, they began to make plans for Thais and Gabriel to move to America.
In the U.S., Thais would have to leave her ability to practice law behind – but she told her loved ones that she knew her new home would offer fresh opportunities for herself and her son.
"I was always fearless -- I believe we only live once," she said.
Immigration consumed her entire savings, and involved a lot of paperwork and interviews.
At last, in September 2016, Thais and Gabriel started their new life in Pittsburgh, and she began wondering what her next career venture would be.
Two years later, she was still looking for the right opportunity in legal or business administration, and feeling deeply discouraged.
Thais heard about the 3 Cups of Coffee® mentoring program through a friend. In November 2017, she was matched with a mentor, Nicole Falbo of BNY Mellon. Soon afterward, she completed the RISE (Refugee and Immigrant Services for Employment) program, where she learned how to better present herself to American prospective employers.
This summer, Thais was hired into an administrative position at Porter Wright, and was recently promoted to office manager.
Seven years ago, at 37, Ionie Evans suffered a back injury that would change the course of her life.
"The pain was so severe that I could no longer work," she said. "I had been neglecting it, and it got to the point where I literally could not walk."
After leaving a desk job as a security dispatcher, she switched careers to become a caregiver in a group home; there, Ionie was lifting heavy objects, cooking and cleaning, and using a cane to get around.
An MRI revealed two herniated discs, with nerve damage; extra weight had aggravated old injuries to produce catastrophic new ones, and this time, she had no health insurance.
She applied for disability benefits, and decided to move from New York to Pittsburgh, where the cost of living was cheaper. But as months of unemployment passed, Ionie fell into a deep depression.
While waiting in the social security office to collect her benefits, Ionie saw a man in a motorized wheelchair. Instead of joining the benefits recipients in the waiting room, he went around back, to his desk, and started to work.
Ionie realized that if he could overcome his physical obstacles to work there, she could too.
Ionie's daughter, Kamilah Evans, completed the New Choices program in 2016; inspired by her daughter's success, Ionie registered for New Choices in 2017.
As she attended class, she felt her spirits lift, and realized she wanted more out of her life -- soon, she was "bit by the college bug," she said.
Wheels began turning in her head, and words like "tuition" and "scholarship" didn't sound so out-of-reach anymore. Suddenly, the future was looking bright: Ionie would pursue social work, to help others, as she had found help.
She registered for classes at Community College of Allegheny County that fall, and graduated this spring with an associate's degree in general studies.
Ionie credits her New Choices instructor, Nieves Stiker, for her new outlook on life.
After decades of rising through the ranks in the transportation industry, Gloria Hahn had achieved success. She expected that her almost 15 years in a director-level position would lead to consideration for the next big promotion.
But instead, in January 2013, at age 56, she was greeted with an offer to incentivize retirement.
"Those who know me understood that I was not a person who was ready for retirement," she said. "I am driven and ambitious, and I knew I had more to offer."
Re-entering the job market, Gloria had trouble finding a job. She felt that her age made the job search even more difficult. She was supposed to be at the top of her game, with years of experience and professional expertise, but for two years, she felt "devastated,” and the confidence she had built was being tested.
"I came from the projects, was a high-school dropout -- that story is not a new story," she said. "You spend your life overcoming, beating the odds. You get to the place where you're thinking, 'I've made it, I've made myself one of the people worth merit' -- only to find out that the stigmas haven't gone anywhere."
Gloria found PA Women Work in summer 2016, and as she completed the New Choices and Customer Service First Class programs, her wounded confidence healed.
In August 2016, she joined the customer service team for UPMC's insurance offerings, and was quickly promoted twice, into the position of Customer Service Concierge.
She recently received the 2018 UPMC Shining Star Award for her performance at work.
"I absolutely love it," Gloria said. "You're dealing directly with a member, hearing their joys and pains."
Gloria is a vocal advocate for PA Women Work as well.
"It's not just for the woman who has a background that you can clearly see needs assistance," she said. "I don’t fit that mold. It’s also for women who are looking to regain a sense of self. They welcomed me with open arms.”
In 2000, at 26, Victoria "Vicki" Wisniewski lost her brother, John, to a car accident, and fell into a deep pit of grief, depression, and heroin addiction. Drugs consumed the next ten years of her life.
One day, laying on her parents’ couch, Vicki thought of her brother and realized that to make him proud, she had to get clean and find a job. It took a lot of hard work, but Vicki put together a new life, with a bartending job she enjoyed, cuddly cats, and a steady partner, Shawn. One by one, the days turned into three years of proud, working sobriety.
On Jan. 27, 2017, Vicki's car was hit by an 18-wheeler. With numerous shattered bones and major organ damage, Vicki spent a week in a coma, then weeks in intensive care.
Her next year was a blur of pain, pain medication, nursing care, and dragging herself from couch to wheelchair and back as she learned to walk again. As she weaned herself off of medication, the pain and flashbacks were excruciating, and Vicki turned back to heroin.
After a failed recovery attempt, she was now facing 18 months in jail. After several months in her cell, Vicki desperately missed her family and was impatient to regain control of her life again. She wrote to the administrators of The Program for Female Offenders, asking to be admitted to their transitional housing program.
Once there, she completed our New Choices and Customer Service First Class programs, and became a star student and a positive influence on her peers. In August, she returned to the program to deliver a speech to other women in recovery.
"I left there feeling this amazing sense of love, that these were genuine people that genuinely cared about me,” Vicki said. “Those nerves that I had melted away with the hugs that I received."
In November, she will begin peer support training classes. In May, she plans to seek state certification to become a peer support specialist.
"I don't want to sweep my experiences under the rug -- because if I do that, then all this meant nothing," she said. "So instead I'm going to use them to reach out.”
The Yvonne Zanos Women of Courage awards are presented in memory of our celebrity host,