Mothers of Reinvention

The Displaced Homemakers are thoroughly 21st century.

Dr. Horowitz International Life Expo March 30 through April 1
Helping hands: Anderson (standing), with Gwendolyn - Garth (center) and Alana Johnson (right). - Walter  Novak
Helping hands: Anderson (standing), with Gwendolyn Garth (center) and Alana Johnson (right).
Nobody's a homemaker anymore, unless she's really old-fashioned or a game-show contestant. That word lost punch somewhere between "23 skiddoo" and "funky fresh." But Sue Anderson is stuck with it.

In 1977, it was a perfectly fine word. That's when Anderson helped start Displaced Homemakers, a self-improvement class at Tri-C for divorced and widowed women who suddenly found themselves broke and jobless. "Sometimes they would be left with a house with a couch in it and not much else," she remembers. "But guess what -- you can't eat a couch!"

Displaced Homemakers was unique because its funding was inscribed into state law, in response to the intensifying plight of suburban ex-wives with more mouths to feed than Hamburger Helper to fill them. This ensured that the money wouldn't vanish with the swipe of a bureaucrat's pen. It also meant that changing the name would require another act of government.

The sunny, streetwise Anderson doesn't have much time to rechisel the golden tablets, so she simply tacked on "Women in Transition" to the old name. Besides, the women she serves are still homemakers, just not the June Cleaver kind. Rather than cul-de-sacs and attached garages, they now come from treatment programs, prisons, and dead-end jobs.

With welfare reform, "the real crunch stuff is going on," Anderson observes. "In the '70s, people weren't as open about being a single parent as they are now. But they weren't put through the wringer to get assistance like they are now."

Some of the women are working on their G.E.D.s; others are trying to leave welfare before they're booted off. They're allowed to eat breakfast in class or miss a session because of an AWOL babysitter. They aren't allowed to divulge each other's dark secrets to the mailman. "What goes on in here stays in here," Anderson implores. "We don't have our business walking around on the streets."

For the self-esteem half of the class, chairs are arranged in a friendly, face-to-face square. During the other four weeks, which are spent on career planning, they return to traditional rows.

Though the current class has been meeting for only three weeks, the women chat like lifelong chums. Having female friends is a welcome change for Alana Johnson, a recovering crack addict. Being in and out of prison, "I've been locked up with women all my life," she says. "I just didn't even bother with it."

Last April, Johnson was released from her second stay at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, where she was sent after numerous arrests for shoplifting. Last month, she was invited to her first baby shower. The mom-to-be was one of her classmates. "I wasn't able to make it," says Johnson, who's 32 and has four children, including one with Down's syndrome. "But I had a gift for her that I was able to bring to class. I ain't never had the chance to do that for nobody."

She's also trying to abstain from bad men. She had a hard time leaving her last boyfriend, even after he held her down in a jealous rage and chopped off her hair with a razor blade. Now, she and the kids stay with her mom. "I've learned responsibility from Sue," she says. "I've been through treatment, and I can talk a counselor into getting me through the class just to graduate. But with Sue, no. 'Cause she be like 'You better bring that homework in.'"

For last night's homework, everybody was supposed to think of good things to say about their classmates. Now it's time to share. Bernadette, a grizzled ex-carny who used to work for Ringling Brothers, is told that she "makes friends easily" and she's "soft and gentle." Johnson is admired because "each and every day, she's responsible for the mistakes that she's made."

Anderson joins in the exercise, showering each student with spurts of almost embarrassingly direct praise. "Hi, Alana," she says tenderly. "You are very bright and intelligent, and you don't miss a trick. You are responsible, and you're loyal. You're encouraging to others. You have a sense of humor."

The women listen raptly. A licensed counselor, Anderson emanates femininity and resolve. Though she grew up in Connecticut, she could easily be a Southern belle. Her blond hair is short and sculpted, and her sea-green eyeshadow matches the shade of her crocheted sweater. A product of a wealthy family, Anderson saw her own mother widowed at 50. "She had a college degree, but she hadn't had to go out and support the family. So I was very aware of some of the things that could happen."

Anderson herself married the wrong man at age 17. A year later, she became a mom. "I knew that I would eventually be divorced," she says. "I almost made the same mistake twice, too. Getting married to the wrong person. But I learned. And that's something that a lot of the women go through -- making poor choices."

Gwendolyn Garth, one of Anderson's former students, still visits every morning before work. "There's about five or six of us still hanging around," Garth says. "It's sort of like a clubhouse. We all pop back in from time to time." With a new apartment and a gallery selling her artwork, Garth is bubbling over with news.

It's a far cry from last year, when Garth was released from prison only to become homeless. But not friendless, because she'd met Anderson through a prerelease program. Anderson visited her at the Salvation Army shelter, helped her apply for a rent voucher, and oohed and aahed at her handmade cards and portraits sketched with a skilled hand.

"I talked with Sue, I had my sponsor, I was grabbing onto everything, everywhere," Garth enthuses. "I was very impatient. I was thinking that my dream was not gonna happen. Sue came and visited with me. She stuck with me through the whole thing."

Once class started, "I felt like I was in The Outer Limits, that it wasn't real, and it would all disappear. I have never been in a place where the love was so unconditional. My faith has grown here and also my confidence. Those things that I used to hope for, with a shaky kind of hope, I now believe that they will happen."

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