In the late 1980s, Michele Wink and her husband moved back to Pittsburgh from New York City so she could be a stay-at-home mom to their growing family. And for nearly 20 years, their plan worked. She raised three children and volunteered with their activities while her husband ran his small business.
But by 2007, her husband's business was struggling in the country's economic downturn and their family health insurance costs were skyrocketing. Ms. Wink needed to find a job, but technology had passed her by during her years at home.
"I would go into a full blown panic attack if I even thought about turning on the computer," she said.
She secured a job in retail, but found it stressful and unsatisfying. Without even the ability to turn on a computer, Ms. Wink felt stuck.
She was told by a friend about PA Women Work, which provides career training and counseling. Unlike many other state and federal programs, PA Women Work does not have income limitations, meaning it is open to everyone -- including men. Ms. Wink became one of 50,000 women statewide who have received assistance through the program, now in its 20th year.
She took part in "New Choices," PA Women Work's signature program, with a 10-session course that focuses on computer skills and career training. There is a heavy emphasis on bonding within the classes, and on rebuilding self-esteem that is often low after a job loss or traumatic life situation. Classes are held locally Downtown and in Shaler, Homewood and Beaver.
"We help them to repackage themselves, give them the self-esteem to be able to walk through the door of an interview," said Julie Marx, executive director of PA Women Work.
Many of the women served are in situations much more dire than Ms. Wink's. Some are homeless. Some have seen their children or other loved ones murdered. Some are coming out of abusive relationships.
PA Women Work has partnered with the YWCA to make sure that the women in its classes have access to benefits and child care subsidies that could make their job search easier. It is also partnering with the United Way on an upcoming initiative to provide short-term services to women in traumatic situations, such as a recent job loss.
Like the women that it helps, PA Women Work has had to be flexible. The program was founded as an outgrowth of the national Displaced Homemakers Network of the 1970s and early 1980s, which lobbied for funds to help women re-enter the workforce following a surge in the divorce rate.
When the national network disbanded in the early 1990s, a group of Pennsylvania women incorporated as PA Women Work and began to receive state funding.
Until just a few years ago, the program was entirely state funded, receiving about $2.5 million per year. After state budget cuts, the organization now receives about $500,000 in state money per year.
Headquartered in Pittsburgh, PA Women Work shut down seven of its offices statewide, going from 20 to 13 locations. It also started looking for alternate funding sources, such as fundraising from corporations and other streams of state funding.
A new program in Homewood, for example, was funded in part through funding from Duquesne Light and PNC through a state neighborhood tax credit program. That Homewood program started a year ago with its first class less than half full, Ms. Marx said. Now, every class has a waiting list.
The organization just started its first annual fundraising campaign, Ms. Marx said.
Local companies are helping to identify career opportunities for program graduates, Ms. Marx said. She was recently told that good customer service skills are particularly in demand, for example, and is working that into the New Choices curriculum.
Other areas of focus in the New Choices class include filling out an online job application, writing a cover letter and evaluating established skills. The majority of participants do not have a computer at home, Ms. Marx said, and many do not even have an email address before the class begins.
For Ms. Wink, computer skills were a clear barrier to future career prospects. She is thrilled with her current employment, working as an office assistant for Tri-State Neurological Associates and as an independent contractor for Impact neurological assessments. As a UPMC employee, she gets health insurance for her family and is eligible for a tuition reimbursement program if she decides to pursue a master's degree.
In gratitude, she has volunteered regularly for PA Women Work over the years.
"I do computer work every day -- I can't even believe I said that," she said.
Anya Sostek: email@example.com or 412-263-1308.