Her hands once cuddled her newborn. They provided care for accident victims as an emergency medical technician. Battled blazes as a volunteer firefighter. Grabbed severed ankle ligaments after a car crash. Clenched when she could no longer stand eight hours at her sales job. Signed an application to enroll at Butler County Community College (BC3). Clapped upon achieving the dean’s list.
On this still August afternoon, Debra Hoffman’s hands slid hangers slightly left, then slightly right across a metal rod. Her eyes glanced up, then down as they surveyed business attire needed for her first day of a practicum required for her to graduate in December, then pursue a position helping military veterans, and find a house in the country where she and her 8-year-old daughter can live.
“I’d like to have animals,” Hoffman said, “and a pool.”
The 38-year-old resident of Mercer County, Pennsylvania, is one of what is expected to be a nine-year-high of 60 students participating this fall in BC3’s Keystone Education Yields Success program. It is funded by the state Department of Human Services and is designed to help students who receive cash assistance or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to pursue postsecondary education at one of Pennsylvania’s community colleges.
Something for themselves
In addition to facilitating KEYS at BC3, Karen Jack arranged for students in her program to be able to select free business and casual attire provided by Dress for Success Pittsburgh’s mobile unit on BC3’s main campus before the start of the fall semester.
“I wouldn’t be able to have any of this if it wasn’t for the KEYS program,” Hoffman said.
Approximately 80% of the 650 students who have participated in a KEYS program established at BC3 in 2005 are female, Jack said. Nearly 90% of the first 43 students to register this fall are female.
Dress for Success Pittsburgh, Jack said, “makes them feel special. Makes them feel pampered. They get a chance to do something for themselves. Many of them have children, and they are thinking about their children all the time. They don’t get to think about themselves. A lot of our students do not have the money to buy outfits for themselves.”
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Among the goals of KEYS is that its students attend and participate in school with the intent of graduating with a credit- or noncredit-bearing certificate or associate degree in career-specific programs.
Graduates of BC3 in May who participated in KEYS earned associate degrees in programs such as registered nursing, criminology and English, Jack said.
Participants this fall range in age from 19 to 58 and are pursuing degrees or certificates in programs such as accounting, biology, business management, computer science, early childhood education, health care science, human resource management, nanofabrication technology and registered nursing, according to Jack.
‘I didn’t have the money’
Students participating in the KEYS program can receive through county assistance offices help that includes childcare, transportation funds, automobile repairs, and textbooks and supplies required for training. KEYS provides resources that include loaned laptop computers, graphing calculators, mobile hotspot devices and textbooks; and incentives and reimbursements.
Hoffman is pursuing an associate degree in office administration-medical career program, and a certificate in the medical coding and billing specialist program. Her practicum this fall at a local healthcare facility “specifically states that you have to wear certain things,” she said. “I didn’t have the money to go out and buy them.”
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Dress for Success Pittsburgh’s mobile unit houses up to 600 items of donated clothing, said Alex Marks, who leads the mobile services team.
“BC3, by bringing us here, allows us to help students who might not otherwise have access to clothing in the stores,” Marks said. “We’re able to provide free clothing for interviews, employment, everyday life, and we bring clothing to them to break down the barriers of transportation or childcare time.”
Hoffman chose a gray blazer, gray pants and “a couple of tops.”
Jolisa Meyers, 29, a business management student at BC3 and single mother of two children, chose a dress, a sweater, a shirt and slacks.
“This is very important because it’s hard for me right now to buy clothes for myself,” Meyers said. “Normally, it goes for my children. … I’m really more worried about my kids than myself. So getting this extra help for clothes is like a blessing to me.”
A college that cares
Savannah Rager, 23, a social work student on BC3’s main campus and a married mother of two children, picked out a blue and white dress and a long-sleeved shirt.
“Some people don’t have a ride or enough money to get what they need,” Rager said. “So coming here, it helps a lot. There are people out there who want to help, whether we have the money or not. It shows that BC3 cares, and that they are actually here for the students.”
Many of Hoffman’s relatives served in the military. Upon graduating from BC3 in December, she said she will wear clothing she received in August when pursuing interviews to become an office administrator with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“You dress for the job you want,” Hoffman said. “You dress better than what the job requires. The nicer you look, the better impression you make. Now I am going to be able to do that.”
Her hands may also assist others such as those participating in BC3’s KEYS program, she said.
“Whenever I graduate, maybe I will be able to help them out, too,” she said.