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    For women in need, a guiding hand

    Since 1981, Women on the Way has supported more than 1,000 St. Petersburg Junior College students.

    [Times photo: Jim Damaske]
    St. Petersburg Junior College student Barbie Codling, left, gets help with algebra from retired match teacher Miriam Sassaman.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2001

    CLEARWATER -- Single mothers and divorcees desperately trying to put their lives back together showed up in droves on college campuses in the early 1980s with few marketable skills and little money.

    They loaded up on courses, but few made it to graduation day.

    The support they needed at Clearwater's St. Petersburg Junior College campus just wasn't there -- until two professors and then-provost Vilma Zalupski came up with an idea for a seminar.

    They wanted to know, "Where is a Woman's Place?"

    They figured 20, maybe 30 women would attend. They were floored when 150 packed a campus auditorium.

    "In that day, we decided there was a need," said Maria Edmonds, an organizer of the event and associate provost at SPJC's Tarpon Springs campus. "Yes, we're here for a purpose. It was wonderful."

    From there, Women on the Way, a program designed to guide women through the college experience, blossomed. This year it is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and the program's current coordinator is searching for more than 1,000 women the program has helped since 1981.

    Women on the Way now serves 300 women each school year. About 80 percent of them are in need of emotional and financial help. The other 20 percent just need the support. Most make the group's office, on the second floor of SPJC's Social Science building, their second home. They often stop by when they need help with time management, homework or family matters.

    Laurie Clement, 36, is a regular.

    She walked onto campus in 1999, fearing she had become a failure. She worked as a hearing-aid specialist but didn't find it very satisfying. She was divorced and childless. Two DUI charges sat on her record, evidence that she nearly lost a bout with cocaine.

    Months earlier, while in recovery, she did some soul searching and figured her experiences as an addict and her talkative nature would be good attributes for a substance abuse counselor.

    "I know what it is like to be so lost your soul actually hurts," she said.

    She has been sober for a year and has a 4.0 grade point average at SPJC.

    "My Narcotics Anonymous is school," she said last week.

    Women on the Way has either directly given her or helped her apply for more than $2,000 in scholarships.

    "I can go up there at any time and find what I need: books, help with math problems."

    Any student who is returning to school after a long absence or is a single parent is eligible for the program, which raises about $50,000 a year for scholarships from donors, including a few loyal ones. Some help finance the program with $5 and $10 checks. SPJC spends about $60,000 a year to pay the salaries of the program's coordinator and a part-time office worker.

    The Women on the Way office is cozy, with three couches and a telephone for emergency calls. It's a place where women can confide in other students who face similar dilemmas with school or relationships, or simply can share a drink for only 30 cents. The office stockpiles current textbooks and allows students to check them out like library books. Across the hall, they may "shop" for free shampoo, tissues, clothing and shoes donated by students and women's groups.

    "It's almost like a social service agency, but I also know if you don't have those bare necessities it's going to be hard to concentrate on your studies," said program coordinator Sharon Coil.

    Graduates say they needed the help.

    "I don't think I would have survived," said Leesther Williams, 56. "I think I would have quit."

    She was 42, twice divorced and the mother of six teenage children when she enrolled at SPJC. She had no choice but to return to school after a 25-year absence.

    "I had nothing to offer," said Williams, now a family life educator for the Family Service Center. "I looked and looked, and I could not get a job anywhere."

    She went back to school because she wanted her second husband to pay child support, and to learn her rights and find out how she could file the legal papers herself.

    She set her sights on earning Cs. She often thought about quitting. She sat up late at night in tears because school was so hard. Then she got an A on an English assignment.

    "I framed the paper, and I never quit," she said. In 1989, she graduated with a 3.66 grade point average. She immediately went back to court. This time, she prevailed and garnished her former husband's wages until his death a year later.

    Zalupski, the provost who gave the go-ahead for the program, is proud of it and of all the stories it has produced. There were naysayers 20 years ago, those who criticized her for paying attention to women's needs.

    "My feeling was, we weren't ignoring anyone," she said of the program, which also had male members.

    Besides, she, Edmonds and the 150 others at that first seminar knew the answer to the question "Where is a Woman's Place?" when they asked it 20 years ago. A woman's place, Edmonds said, is "anywhere she wants to be."

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