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A place where women on welfare can build a new life

Contrasts abound at WEAVE, a job-readiness program for women in Boston's Roxbury section. You find the discarded and the vibrant, past discouragements and dreams for the future.

Most of the trainees here are on welfare. Most did not complete high school. But the staff in the freshly painted, white-pillared mansion that houses WEAVE are striving to turn the lives of these women around. A poster tacked up next to a thirsty looking plant proclaims: ''To be the one that you want to be, that is success.''

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Shirley Royster is a typical trainee. In a final push to get her life together after a four-year drug addiction and the state's taking custody of her children, Mrs. Royster enrolled in WEAVE.

''This was my last hope,'' she says, now recovered from her drug dependency, employed full time, and back with her children, ages 5 and 12.

She credits the openness, closeness, and real concern of other participants and staff with making this program - run by Women Inc., a nonprofit counseling and educational organization - help her succeed.

Her initial fears were dispelled when she discovered she could share her past and not be seen as ''just another junkie,'' but rather as a unique person. Once, when she decided to drop out and missed classes for several days, two teachers appeared at her home and persuaded her to return. ''It really overwhelmed me to see they cared,'' she says.

When women enroll in the program, many feel incompetent as they wrestle with crises related to their poverty: overdue rent bills and threats of eviction, a child truant from school, broken plumbing a landlord is slow to repair.

Before they can concentrate on learning specific job skills, therefore, trainees must build their sense of self-worth and frame a more stable life, says Sondra Stein, program director and founder of WEAVE (Women's Educational and Vocational Enrichment).

For that reason, the curriculum encourages mutual problem solving while it emphasizes building personal skills and understanding social policies that shape poor people's lives.

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The enrollees, ranging in age from 19 to 55, study interpersonal relations, basic math and reading, child discipline, and budgeting. To strengthen their ability to deal with the larger social system, learning also includes practical advice for parents:

* How to be sure a child receives remedial help in school.

* How to make sure a landlord brings an apartment in compliance with building codes.

* Ways to obtain good health care.

* Hints on finding one's way around Boston.

* An understanding of the state decisionmaking process for determining the number of subsidized day-care slots for low-income children.

As the women discover they needn't be victims of their pasts nor of their surroundings, they begin to set attainable goals for themselves. Their self-confidence rises. They uncover hidden abilities - and use them to help themselves and other enrollees, a further boost to their self-esteem.

One woman may tell others, for example, how to apply for public housing, or she may share discipline she's found effective with her teen-agers.

This peer support and self-help network is key to the success of the three-year-old program, Ms. Stein points out. Building a sense of community among women accustomed to struggling in isolation is a major WEAVE goal, fostered by weekly talk sessions and by the six hours a day, five days a week the trainees spend together during the basic 12-week training.

Three-quarters of last year's participants completed the initial three-month sequences. This is well above the 50 percent average for similar training programsthat focus mostly on math, reading, and writing and place less importance on mutual self-help, Ms. Stein says.

Most of WEAVE's funds come from federal monies awarded through Boston's Neighborhood Development Employment Agency, the Massachusetts Dept. of Education , and the state's Office of Communities and Development via the Community Services Block Grant. Some small foundation and corporation grants supplement the public dollars.

There has been no recidivism among WEAVE participants. Most enter a higher-level WEAVE sequence, a WEAVE high school diploma program, specific job training, an internship, or a combination of several programs. Only a few choose immediate employment. On average, at least a year is needed after the initial training to compete successfully in the job market.

One of the first participants, Ann Fitzpatrick, had been forced to go on welfare after her husband of nearly two decades left her. With three teen-age children, she had not been employed during her marriage and lacked a high school diploma. Rarely had she ventured outside her Roxbury neighborhood. Her job prospects were grim. Only because of a friend's continual urging did she enter WEAVE - and then with trepidation.

But she stayed, because of a 50-year-old woman who had just earned a high school diploma and who became her role model. That woman went on to study for a bachelor's degree. ''You can do it, too,'' was her constant encouragement to Mrs. Fitzpatrick.

Today, with a high school degree, Mrs. Fitzpatrick studies typing and holds a part-time internship at WEAVE. Soon she hopes to become a full-time employee there.

Mrs. Royster moved on to keypunch training and high school studies after spending 1 1/2 years in the job-readiness program. She now earns a full-time annual salary of $9,500 as a keypunch operator and speaks of her accomplishment with pride, but she is little better off financially than mothers on welfare.

This frequent predicament of female-headed households was recently documented by the Massachusetts Human Services coalition report ''Up the Down Escalator.'' The financial hardship for someone in Mrs. Royster's income category is primarily due to reductions in public benefits, such as food stamps and day-care subsidies as well as loss of medicaid, that accompany a rise in income, the study says.

With earnings only $1,280 above the Labor Department's poverty level, Mrs. Royster isn't sure how she and her children will manage financially. Yet her future plans include computer training and a step up the career ladder.

''I want to continue improving myself,'' she says with determination.

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