NOSW group
Photo provided by New Opportunity School for Women

Recent graduates of the two-week residential program at New Opportunity School for Women in Berea, Kentucky, celebrate their accomplishments. Lou Pirozzi-Erb (fourth from the left), SWAP location coordinator in Hindman, Kentucky, served as a house sister and continues to be involved with the program.

It’s no secret that when women are empowered to improve their lives, the lives of their families and the surrounding community benefit. A local organization in Appalachia is providing tools and opportunities for women to do just that, and it is making a difference.

MCC is partnering with the New Opportunity School for Women (NOSW) in Berea, Kentucky, whose mission it is to improve the financial, educational and personal circumstances of low-income women in the Appalachia region and Kentucky.

According to Robbie Pentecost, Executive Director, the organization provides a “hand up” by using a holistic curriculum to empower the participants to overcome the challenges they face living in an economically distressed region. Many women have inadequate education, limited employment skills, few role models and resulting low self-esteem.

Twice a year, up to 12 women are invited to a two-week residential program, which is free of charge and the program even covers childcare and transportation costs. “The program provides an intensive curriculum, offers dental and health education, screenings and exams, and professional internships as well as weekend activities for cultural enrichment and civic engagement,” said Pentecost. “The unique design of this residential program allows the women to fully focus on themselves without being distracted by the challenges in their home lives.”

The program is extensive, covering everything from computer skills to personal finance to networking opportunities to community engagement. Following the program, attendees participate in an internship related to their career interest in their home community while earning a stipend. And each woman who completes the program leaves with a resume, cover letter and specific goals for her future.

“The most immediate and visible impact is on the participants self-esteem,” reflected Pentecost. “Many women come into the program having been somewhat isolated from others, not believing that they are worthy of love and respect and lacking confidence that they have any skills. Within a few days, or even within the first day, participants are standing visibly taller and their confidence is growing.”

Recent graduate surveys show that 79% of participants are currently employed, in school or both, and 80% have completed some form of higher or continuing education. “Long-term impact includes improved financial stability in their family, additional educational achievement, stable career opportunities, improved family systems and involvement in the solutions to issues facing their local communities,” said Pentecost.

MCC has partnered with NOSW by providing a grant to help fund their community-based programs throughout the Appalachian region and rural areas of Kentucky. These three-day sessions focus on building self-esteem, increasing motivation, identifying local resources and setting goals, both short- and long-term.

After hearing about NOSW from a previous graduate, Sheila Brown from Winchester, Kentucky, participated in one of the three-day programs last spring and went on to complete the two-week residential program in November. “I was so broken, spiritually. I really didn’t know where to turn or where to even have anybody to talk to,” reflected Brown. “I can’t say enough about this program. It’s just immensely changed my life.”

Sheila Brown Sheila Brown (center) receives a certificate upon completion of a two-week intensive residential program through the New Opportunity School for Women in Berea, Kentucky.Photo provided by New Opportunity School for Women

She says she learned practical things like how to write a resume, how to use computers and how to speak in front of people. Brown is now working full-time and has earned a scholarship, with the possibility of a second, to work towards her master’s degree.

But according to Brown, the biggest thing she learned was about loving herself. “I thought that I was being selfish by taking care of myself, but I learned that self-care is important. And it’s okay to ask for help,” said Brown. “I have a lot of self-love today. And I’m proud to be from Kentucky.”

In addition to the grant, MCC partners with NOSW through Lou Pirozzi-Erb, location coordinator for MCC’s Sharing With Appalachian People (SWAP) site in Hindman, Kentucky. She first got involved with NOSW in 2017 during one of the community-based programs at Hindman Settlement School. According to Pentecost, Pirozzi-Erb immediately connected with the women who were taking part in NOSW. Pirozzi-Erb has gone on to serve as House Sister for two residential sessions. She will also serve as meal coordinator for the upcoming February session.

NOSW continues to grow their programming, now offering a three-day training as part of a larger job training program for participants of Liberty Place, a drug recovery program in Richmond, Kentucky.

For graduates of NOSW, the relationships they have built remain a big part of their lives. “We’re just a big family, actually a sisterhood,” says Brown. “You can’t ask for anything better than that.”

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