NEW BEDFORD — Ronell Browder, a 34-year-old single mom of five, remembers the turning point in her educational life.
Originally from Boston, she had become pregnant at 17 and didn’t finish high school. Her neighborhood was getting dangerous, she said, and she wanted out. She had an aunt in New Bedford who encouraged her to come south.
By the time she arrived in the Whaling City, Browder had three children to support. She went to an information session for a GED program, where someone encouraged her to sign up for information on New Bedford’s evening diploma program.
Not long after, a packet came in the mail.
“I’ll never forget it,” she said. “It was raining. It was cold.” She opened the envelope. Someone believed in her, and she was ready.
“That was it for me, right there,” she said.
She got her diploma. But education is a long road, and Browder wasn’t done. She enrolled at Bristol Community College and was referred to the LifeWork Project, which guides low-income women, primarily single mothers, through a five-year plan of advancing their education, boosting their financial literacy, and more. LifeWork is a Women’s Fund program in partnership with BCC.
This month, Browder earned her associate degree in human services. On Thursday, she became a LifeWork graduate — one of the first four women to finish all five years of the program, after it was expanded from the original three years to help women make more progress in their education and careers.
Another LifeWork participant, New Bedford native Stormi Monteiro, just finished her bachelor’s degree in sociology at UMass Dartmouth.
Both women were set to speak at a celebration at the Whaling Museum for a dozen women: LifeWork participants who are graduating from college, those graduating the LifeWork Project itself, and those graduating from a similar predecessor program, Women in Successful Environments (WISE). BCC President Laura Douglas was the keynote speaker.
Monteiro, 31, is a familiar face to anyone who spends much time at the YWCA of Southeastern Massachusetts, where she works for the YWKids and Leading Ladies programs. She has an 8-year-old son.
When she was growing up, Monteiro moved several times, spending most of her childhood in Fall River. She graduated from Dartmouth High School but didn’t go to college right away.
“I think I was just young and unaware of what my capabilities were,” she said in an interview.
Later, a traumatic experience with domestic violence made her want to help other women in similar situations, and she knew that to do that, she would have to go back to school.
She enrolled at BCC. She was already in her last semester when she heard about LifeWork from Amy Marden in the college’s financial aid office.
LifeWork connected her to the YWCA, where she got a job, and before long, she finished her associate degree and began taking classes at UMass Dartmouth.
Manuela Rosa, the LifeWork director, was a big help.
“I felt like she was truly getting to know the person that I was,” Monteiro said.
Now, with her bachelor’s, she hopes to find a job advocating for women.
LifeWork uses a tool called the Bridge to Self Sufficiency, created by the Boston-based group Economic Mobility Pathways, or EMPath, to help women build their economic self-sufficiency by reaching specific goals in five areas: family/housing stability, well-being, education and training, financial management, and employment and career management.
Most students rate themselves near the bottom of the scale in each area when they begin.
“We really, really focus on the financial management and the education piece,” Rosa said. Participants get paired with mentors from the community, including mentors provided by Bristol County Savings Bank, BankFive and BayCoast Bank, who work with them on financial skills.
LifeWork also provides monetary incentives to the women, funded by the Women’s Fund through its donors. Participants can earn up to $1,000 a year by achieving their goals. They keep 40 percent, and 60 percent goes into an account they can't touch right away. If they save $2,000, the Women’s Fund will match it for approved expenses like education and housing.
LifeWork started with 35 participants and now has 22, Rosa said. Some left at the end of the initial three-year commitment, and two or three moved away for personal reasons.
Browder said one of the most interesting things she did in the program was take a financial class in which she looked at her credit history; it motivated her to fix her credit.
Now that she has a degree from BCC, she plans to continue at UMass Dartmouth, though she isn't sure of her major. Right now, she supports her family stocking supermarket shelves for SAS Retail Services. She is interested being a family advocate, working with troubled teens, and working in health care.
Already, the change in her life is rubbing off on her children: She has begun looking at colleges with her oldest daughter, who is in ninth grade at New Bedford High School.
“I feel great," she said. "I feel amazing, because I have something that nobody can take from me."