expanding horizons

by katherine stevens
Patricia Brooks hasn’t had it easy. Growing up in a single parent household with five brothers and sisters it was hard to ask for more than food on the table and shelter overhead. In fact there were a lot of things she didn’t ask for. She didn’t ask for getting pregnant at the age of 14, being forced to drop out of high school because she needed money more than an education. And when she first transplanted to Jacksonville from the North she didn’t ask to be homeless with a child on her hip. With no formal education it was hard to find a job. This was not what she’d asked for out of life.
Maria Corona hasn’t had it easy either. Having moved to Jacksonville from Mexico six years ago, she’s had a hard time adjusting to her new home. Without knowledge of the English language she couldn’t work, couldn’t drive and couldn’t communicate with the world around her. Feeling trapped in her past, it was hard for Maria to move forward with her new life.
Moving forward is a funny thing. The only way to get there is to look towards the future, but when you have a past like Patricia and Maria’s, it’s not always that easy. This is where the Women’s Center of Jacksonville comes in. Since 1995 the Center has been a sanctuary for women across the First Coast. They pride themselves on being a hub for crisis support, counseling, art initiatives and education. But their most recent addition is what brought Patricia and Maria to the Center.
The Expanded Horizons Literacy Program was established just five years ago in response to the city’s need for an all-women literacy program. Expanded Horizons offers free one-on-one tutoring and small, all-women group classes in reading, writing and computer skills, GED preparation and English as a Second Language. Since 2004 they’ve served over 400 students in order to help them to improve their literacy skills. And in December of 2008 the program celebrated its 5th Annual Student Recognition Ceremony.
It was just one year ago that Patricia Brooks found herself entering the doors of the Women’s Center, seeking something, but exactly what she did not know.
“I never graduated from high school and when I heard about the free tutoring I didn’t know what to expect,” says Patricia. “But when I got there and everyone was so wonderful I knew this was a great place.”
Admitting that she’d thought about giving up once or twice, Patricia Brooks stood up proudly at the ceremony as she received the Student of the Year award. “I was embarrassed that I’d dropped out of school and that I couldn’t read. But it was like things I thought I should’ve learned when I was younger I’m learning now and soaking it up like a sponge.”
And though life hasn’t been easy for Patricia, she’s persevered. “I feel free from stress here,” she says, “I’ve learned a lot of things. I’m learning how to relax and take deep breaths. I’m learning how to really live.”
Maria Corona has come a long way as well. She entered the center two years ago seeking language training. Since then, not only have her English and her confidence improved, but she’s finally earned her Florida drivers license.
“I am very happy,” says Maria, who received the Most Dedicated Student award at the ceremony. “I feel good because I’m learning English and helping my kids with their homework.”
What’s special about Expanded Horizons is that it’s the only program in the Southeast that offers all-women literacy services. In fact they are one of the few programs that offer this service in the United States.
“Expanded Horizons doesn’t just impact a student and her family, but volunteers and the community as a whole,” says Shoshanah Hilmer, Expanded Horizons Program Coordinator.
As you enter the doors of the Women’s Center you instantly feel a sense of peace and comfort. Beautiful and bright canvases line the walls (some local art by featured female artists); big windows welcome you in, displaying an enclosed arboretum sitting delicately in the middle of the building, with a lush garden and seats for meditating. Warm faces and warm spaces are helping women get back on track.
“My goal is to get my GED,” says Patricia smiling, “I’m going to work and work until I get it.”
For more information on the Women’s Center of Jacksonville visit: www.womenscenterofjax.org