I moved to Lancaster County with my two boys and their father in February of 1999. We decided to move here after falling in love with the city’s clean streets and beautiful architecture. I had no idea I would be pregnant within days of moving here, or worst yet, that I would end up a single mother. A sad experience in my life, that left me feeling lost and alone, I joined the New Choices Program not expecting much. After all, how much could possibly change in a matter of weeks? I truly had no idea how joining in this experience would help change my perspective about life.
The New Choices Program offered me the respect, encouragement and guidance that I needed to change, not just the direction my life was going in but that of my children. Since graduating the program, I have slowly been working on achieving my personal goals, things I never thought I could achieve. Things like becoming a productive member of society, a licensed driver, obtaining a college degree, home ownership and the joy of watching my children achieve their academic goals.
And thanks to the continued guidance and support I received from this program, I can proudly say that not only did I graduate from Thaddeus Stevens College with an Associate’s Degree in Business Administration, but I also recently received my Bachelor’s Degree in Corporate Communications from Elizabethtown College. I’ve also learned I have a passion for helping others, and I am working at Harrisburg Area Community College as a Facilitator for the KEYS Program. The Keys program is a program of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare that offers students who are on public assistance support in their pursuit of post-secondary education.
Just one month after buying a house, I was unexpectedly laid off. I had been in my position for over 10 years, working as a social worker, job developer, and youth counselor. I was shocked, but I knew that many nonprofits were losing funding. That meant that my networking connections were also laying people off.
As I signed up for unemployment and applied to several jobs, I struggled with depression. Looking for a job takes a toll on you, and when no one is hiring, the toll is even greater. Still, I didn’t want to stand still; I wanted to do something productive. I had a mortgage, I had a child, I had other responsibilities. My bills still needed to be paid.
In the midst of trying to figure out my next move, one of my girlfriends referred me to PA Women Work. She had graduated from New Choices, and she thought the program would help me.
As a job developer, I already knew a lot about career development, but I went in to New Choices with a positive attitude, ready to learn. Through the program, I realized I wasn’t alone; there were others like me, and we could help each other. I brushed up on my skills, and I took time to consider my future: Where did I want to be? What was I going to do about it?
Through New Choices, I obtained a temporary position at UPMC. While grateful for the position, my heart was still in working with youth and social services. I kept working towards this goal, and eventually, I was hired at Jeremiah’s Place. Now I’m working with kids, I’m doing what I’m good at, and my job brings a smile to my face.
I don’t consider myself the “typical” New Choices candidate. I hold a Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership, and I was working towards a PhD. I worked for the federal government for 24 years, the latter 12 in human resources. I had the education, and I had full-time work. Had.
I was working in New Mexico in a high-stakes, high-stress job. I was managing, but I wasn’t happy. Eventually, I chose to leave my job and return to Pittsburgh to help my 93-year-old mother.
I arrived in Pittsburgh with no job and no prospects. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in human resources or transition to a new career. One day, my mother saw an article about New Choices in the newspaper. She handed it to me and said, “You don’t have a job, you don’t have anywhere to be; go to this.” At 93, you don’t mince words.
I had a toolbox filled with my skills and experiences, but I needed to know how to use them. I wanted to know: How many different ways could I recreate myself? Which tools did I need to improve and which could I repurpose? New Choices helped me answer these questions. I learned about the private sector, I learned how I could transfer my skills to different careers, and I improved my computer skills.
Today, I work as an Administrative Services Assistant for the U.S. Attorney’s office. I am confident and I am happy. I thank PA Women Work for helping me make this change. I tell people: Time is like money: you can only spend it once, so spend it wisely. New Choices is the best investment women can make in themselves. It is time well spent.
Roberta Duff was awarded a 2014 Woman of Courage award at our 2014 Circle of Hope gala.