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Barbara Williams is a survivor, even when the odds are stacked against her.
When she enrolled in a program through the North Carolina Manufacturing Institute to become a certified production technician, she was the oldest in the class. The 59-year-old walks with a limp, a cane and needs hip replacement surgery.
With no car of her own, Barbara relied on public transit and friends to get to her certification classes. The only student in the class without a laptop, she had to find other computers she could use to complete her homework.
Barbara’s greatest challenge, however, was that she was homeless. She is living at the Rowan Helping Ministries shelter, dependent on services there for all her essential needs.
At the graduation in December for the eight-week certification program, Barbara marched past all those obstacles to receive not just a diploma but the top award as class valedictorian.
“I have a deep, abiding faith,” Barbara says of the grit she has mustered in recent years. “My encouragement comes from heaven.”
What she receives, she pays forward through optimism and encouragement to others.
“My teacher called me the life of the party,” Barbara admits. “I kept everything livened up in our classes. I felt after the second test, which a lot of the people in my class scored low on, that I needed to issue a good-natured challenge. I told them I intended to do very well on the next test and I wanted to see if they could beat me. It worked – they worked hard and we all did well.”
Barbara had a long history of working and living independently in her own home prior to coming to the shelter. She worked in the textile manufacturing industry – at Cannon, Pillowtex, and Fieldcrest – for 12 years. Then she joined her husband on the road as a truck driver for 10 years.
When her husband passed away in 1999, Barbara returned to manufacturing jobs. And then she took another blow last May when the Tuscarora plant where she worked shut down. A week into her job search, her van broke down. She didn’t have the $2,000 to fix it, so she lost her ability to get to job interviews.
“In August, my unemployment ran out and I ended up here,” she said, referring to the homeless shelter. “I was grateful it was here. It was the first time I had ever been homeless in my life because I had always worked. The programs here are good and there is a lot of encouragement from the staff and volunteers.”
She credits a lot of people with helping her succeed in the certification program and get back on her feet - the Rowan Helping Ministries staff and her case manager Jean LeMaster, her instructors in Rowan Cabarrus Community College’s employability lab at the shelter, her instructor for the certification classes, and folks at the East Spencer Town Hall where the classes met.
Before finding a job, Barbara needs to undergo hip replacement surgery so that she can work without pain. Several months ago, Barbara’s shelter case manager helped her apply for disability income and she was approved. She is now working through the disability and Medicaid systems to get her surgery approved and she has been saving her income so that she can move to an apartment soon.
“I want to be able to afford a vacation, to have what I want and need and be able to put some money in the bank,” says Barbara of her future. “I want to get my own place. I want to have a job and work at something I am interested in. I would like to go back to school. There are a lot of things I want to accomplish.”