Julie Kaas is a program supervisor at a preschool who is adjusting to life as a single mother of three teenage boys after her marriage of 25 years ended. She was recently featured in The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink. Today she joined President Barack Obama at the White House as he signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors.
Below is the transcript from a speech that she gave last week at a Washington Women’s Employment and Education about her journey, as well as photographs of Julie from a photojournalism project commissioned by The Shriver Report. For the project, a team of seven award-winning female photographers led by Barbara Kinney crisscrossed the country to document a day in the life of women living on the brink.
Growing up, riding horses was a main activity for me. I enjoyed the time I spent training, grooming, developing a trust between horse and rider, and just being outside.
But sometimes, even the best horsewoman gets bucked off. I remember that happening once; I landed on my back with the wind knocked out of me. For a few seconds I couldn’t breathe, and then slowly I felt the pain, assessed the damage, grabbed my horse and slowly, painfully picked myself up and rode home.
After 24 years of marriage, I had the wind knocked out of me. What I had planned for my life was gone. I have three teenage sons, a trailer home on five acres to maintain, AND not much confidence. I had been out of the workforce for twenty years, although I had home-schooled my boys.
I needed help. I have a two year degree enabling me to teach preschool and had worked part-time the last couple of years. But that wouldn’t provide near enough. I didn’t think I was college material.
I stumbled across the Washington Women’s Employment and Education (WWEE) program on the internet. A comprehensive computer class, for FREE. Wow, was it too good to be true? With no job in the summer and kids at their grandparents, I could do this. I made the call to Nancy.
The computer class was challenging, foreign and a little scary but the work was pretty straight forward. I am still amazed at all the projects I completed for my portfolio. (That was a requirement for graduation!)
The afternoon classes were a whole different story. I do remember thinking, “I don’t need this part.” But I did need it! One concept was not to put the blame on everyone else. They even said: “Other people are not responsible for your happiness.”
“Wait a minute!” I thought “What do you mean it is not THEIR fault?!” I didn’t do this to myself! I never planned to be in this position!
OUCH!!! I cried all the way home. SO… Why did I go back? Somehow I knew I had been thrown a lifeline.
My biggest break through was when Amira drew a target on the white board. In the center was a baby bird. This represented the boundaries we all need in all social relations. The people we let into our inner circle must continually prove themselves trustworthy.
My current target lines were all blurred. I needed separation of close friends, surface friends, acquaintances, co-workers and toxic people. I had a habit of saying intimate things to people who belonged to the outer circles. I thought I was doing right to be a peacemaker. Boy was I wrong!! Changing this way of thinking seemed impossible. But I am well on my way to distance people with firmness and respect. WHAT a difference it is making in my life!
Why do I think the WWEE program was so successful? To illustrate my answer to that question, I thought of a fish ladder. Wikipedia explains: that a fish ladder is a structure on or around artificial barriers, to enable fish make their natural migration between salt and fresh waters.
The fish pass around barriers by swimming and leaping up a series of relatively low steps into the waters on the other side. The velocity of water falling over the steps has to be great enough to attract the fish to the ladder but it not so great that it washes the fish back downstream or exhausts them to the point of inability to continue their journey up river.
The WWEE program was my fish ladder. The computer class got my attention. The afternoon classes were the low steps carefully designed to motivate without overwhelming me – this is where I started re-building my self-confidence. I had other “fish” – classmates to empathize and encourage. I saw that each teacher was there to guide, support and cheer on each student.
Here is an example of how I’ve changed. I use to avoid confrontation at any cost and had the habit of being submissive. One of my sons was experiencing a challenge in school. I knew the procedures set in place would have worked for most students, but it would set my child up for failure.
I had confidence that I knew my child. I calmly, respectfully yet firmly said, no that won’t work in this case. And another solution was agreed upon. I remember walking out of the school thinking “Wow, I can make adult decisions”.
My dream is to work with children as an occupational therapist. This will require a master’s degree. So I am starting my journey – I am applying to college to start my BA in psychology. AND I was just hired as a PART-TIME program supervisor for a pre-school. I will have to be careful with my money but in about two years I will be finished with my BA. I then will have the ability to make it financially.
I came out of the WWEE program with the confidence that I am college material. I am in charge of my own happiness and I can be an excellent example for my children. For that I will be forever grateful.
To learn more about the Washington Women’s Employment & Education organization, click here.
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