Carolyn's House recently held its first "graduation," one that didn't focus on the academic accomplishments of the four graduates, but instead on some very personal achievements.
Carolyn's House is the YWCA of Niagara's transitional housing program for homeless women and children.
The "unusual and special" graduation ceremony was held to mark the goals met individually by each female graduate and her family.
"[The goal] is not set by us," said Kathleen Granchelli, YWCA of Niagara director. "It's very personal, and that's the great thing. It's not something handed to them. It's all about their success and is based on what they have been through in their lives, not what goals society sets.
"These are women who have had to face challenges."
Roxann Luchese, who has fought through drug addiction, domestic abuse and unemployment, was among the graduates.
"Carolyn's House has helped me turn my life around," Luchese said.
Luchese said she came to Carolyn's House last May with just the clothes on her back and her 10-year-old daughter. She said her daughter had recently returned from foster care, and she didn't want to lose her again.
"Carolyn's House was a very secure environment. My goal was to get away and get on my own two feet," Luchese said.
She said she has had a secretarial job since August and a new goal of buying her own home and getting her first car.
"Carolyn's House has brought me back," she said. "My self-esteem was so low in [my past] relationship. . . . There are people willing to help. But you have to want it."
Other graduates are:
*Randi Saunderson, a mother of three, whose son, Shane, was one of five babies born while their mothers lived in Carolyn's House. Her long-term goal is to reunite her family. On the way to her goal, she recently completed GED classes and obtained her diploma and is enrolled in the house's 12-week culinary arts program.
*Cynthia Travis, whose goal was to regain custody of her three children. She achieved that while living at Carolyn's House. She also was hired as the only member of the Carolyn's House cleaning staff and may one day be able to open her own cleaning business. She continues to work on her GED.
*Yashika Campbell, a survivor of domestic violence, found herself homeless and in need of medical care after she suffered a stroke at age 28. She and her daughter were the first residents to arrive at Carolyn's House in August 2005. She is now enrolled in the registered nursing program at Niagara County Community College.
Carolyn's House Director Teresa Martinez said that even though these women reached their first goals, they women continue to set goals for themselves and achieve more than they ever thought they could.
"Graduation is about reaching goals, and that's what this program is about. It is connected to [regaining] self-sufficiency. That is the mission of this program," Martinez said.
Granchelli said graduation does not mean the participants have to leave Carolyn's House. She said, in some cases, it is about reaching just the first phase of a goal.
The women who have been in the program for a while are great mentors for women who are coming in, Granchelli said.
"This is not a mandated program," Luchese said. "You don't get sent here; you have to want to be here."
The 19-unit home offers training in the culinary arts, hospitality and nursing and also offers a 24-hour, on-site day care center for residents who are working or receiving training.