In 2010, Aster Yilma, an Ethiopian-born resident of South Orange, discovered that her husband had misused all of their assets.
“I found myself with only $60 to my name and my home in the process of foreclosure,” she told NJJN as she sat in a conference room at the National Council of Jewish Women’s (NCJW) Center for Women in Livingston. “I suffered several nervous breakdowns.”
Yilma had been a full-time homemaker who worked at “little minimum wage jobs” while raising her son, before her husband landed her in financial distress.
In desperation, she remembered a newspaper ad she had stashed away 10 years earlier which offered help for displaced homemakers from the NCJW’s Essex County chapter. She phoned its Center for Women.
“When I called NCJW I said, ‘I’m not Jewish’ and they told me, ‘It doesn’t matter.’”
Yilma told the woman on the other end of the phone she was suffering from emotional and financial problems. “She told me, ‘We can’t help you with everything, but if you have to pick one thing, what would it be?’ I said, ‘My mental health.’”
She had her first appointment a day later, and right off the bat they gave her a bagel with cream cheese. Yilma met with career services manager Patty Kremen, who gave her gift cards for gasoline and a supermarket chain, and connected her to financial advisers who helped her keep her home. Then Yilma enrolled in a variety of NCJW programs that ranged from self-empowerment workshops to a computer skills lab.
“The kindness and the understanding were just so moving.”
NCJW enabled Yilma to make use of her bilingual abilities to become credentialed as an Amharic-to-English translator. She now works in the courts systems in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. In addition, she is employed as an interpreter for runners from Ethiopia who come to the United States each fall to compete in the New York City Marathon.
NCJW “helped me to find me,” she said. “They helped me discover skills I didn’t know I had.”
Yilma is one of some 100 women who have been aided by the women’s center each year since 1981. For the past 10 years, it has received an annual $10,000 grant from the Division of Housing and Community Development at the Essex County Department of Economic Development, Training, and Employment. At the beginning of the month, NCJW announced receipt of the grant for 2017 to 2018, which aims to help women whose years of employment have been sidetracked by childcare, divorce, widowhood, or health issues, and who now must re-enter the workforce.
“They have lost income and the lives they thought they had,” said Kremen. “All of them need to redo resumes. They need to learn new ways of looking for a job through social media for work that is no longer advertised in newspapers.”
“Their financial underpinnings have been pulled out from under them,” said Sue Wasserman, director of community services for NCJW/Essex. She told NJJN the program has placed 29 women since the start of 2017 in a range of jobs, from part-time employment to high-level executive positions.
In addition to free job training, including interviewing and computer skills, the clients receive beauty treatments, make-up tips, clothing donations, and, in some cases, free dental care.
The Center receives aid from soup kitchens, food pantries, and Jewish Family Service of MetroWest.
For clients who have to make difficult choices in spending limited dollars on competing necessities, the center has an on-premises supply of canned goods in Kremen’s office, referred to as “Patty’s Pantry.”
“Patty has a good sense of what women might need. Some of them might be choosing to pay their rent and [buy] clothes for their children before buying food for themselves,” said Wasserman.
The multitude of services offered at the Center for Women have earned Yilma’s eternal gratitude.”
After walking through its door for the first time with “zero self-esteem and zero hope, I now have very high self-esteem,” she said. “I am not desperate anymore. I am not afraid anymore. I have peace of mind. I don’t recognize myself. I am totally new. They reconstructed me.”