Jackie survived two abusive marriages and divorces, followed by therapy. Two weeks ago, she quit her job to stay home with her 3-year-old, who has severe emotional and behavioral problems.
The mother of three said that, more than anything else, she has always felt inadequate - unable to handle life, her family, her choices or her future.Sherry has two school-age children but found herself with no income when her husband was thrown in jail for six months.
Sandy separated from her husband - the subject of a long-term "love-hate" relationship that has built emotional barriers between her and her three children.
All three women admit to running from problems instead of confronting them, often numbing feelings of self-loathing with alcohol and negative behavior.
They met for the first time recently, and together are rebuilding their lives in a state-sponsored process of self-discovery, participating in a six-day, 48-hour self-sufficiency program. Mack Gift, who teaches the classes under contract with the Department of Social Services, said it's a vital step on the road to independence and off welfare.
Gift, who has a doctorate in sociology, offers classes in different district offices each month. More than 1,200 women have gone through his training groups, where the focus, he said, is on "gestalt" - the whole person - and assertiveness training. (His classes for men have a different emphasis.)
"Generally, the women have limited job experience and training. The most appropriate self-sufficiency focus is on training programs, whether long- or short-term. But they need support while they're training, and we try to help with that."
Classes deal with networking and exploring resource options, teamwork, anger resolution, positive self-image and steps to achieving independence. Role playing is used, which results in a "lot of laughing and crying.
"There's a natural human process of problem solving, working with skills people have already," Gift said. "We shift to negotiating differences using assertive behavior and put together a very sensible self-sufficiency plan that doesn't demand magic.
"I focus on careers rather than jobs. If people do work they halfway enjoy, they'll do good work. In this class they get a chance to find out what it is they want - who they are - and to take advantage of their strengths."
Self-esteem is the most important ingredient to success, said Gift, and it can mean a variety of things. "Sometimes it means employment. Sometimes it means dealing with lots of issues that people have learned and carried around inside that block them, like sex abuse, where in most cases the person becomes passive. They learn to disavow their own voice and don't work with their own anger. There are lots of very individual kinds of issues, from abuse to feeling very, very lonely."
Gift's goal is to help participants feel good about themselves and their ability to solve problems - a goal that differs from some self-sufficiency efforts.
"More and more I think we are reinventing the wheel. Self-sufficiency is getting a job philosophy, a work-at-any-job approach I'm not very comfortable with," he said.
Each woman claims to have gained something different, but their praise for the class sounds like a testimonial dinner: "I have had to finally see myself as me, that my problems are things I am doing to myself." "You find out you're not alone." "I am learning to be more positive as a parent." "It has helped me rekindle the confidence I once had."
Sherry expressed it for everyone. "From here, it's all uphill. I am leaving behind what's ugly. And as I grow, (people in my life) who can't grow with me are going to be left behind."
The sixth day includes a ceremonial graduation that supplies the clean break Gift said is essential. "We say goodbye and really END each group. I don't want to turn this training into another dependency. I want no hangers-on. I'm very important to these women right now, but that will fade and I will be a pleasant memory. Then, hopefully, they will know they can deal with problems themselves, using the skills they have learned."