Two years ago, Marea Washington and her two children were on welfare and living in a shelter in the old mill town of Lowell, Mass., once a place of shallow hopes.
Today, Ms. Washington is making more than $1,800 a month running a new home day care business from her apartment in a low-income housing project. She cares for her four-month-old baby and five children of other women who are moving from welfare to work.
"It's a really great feeling to know I'm getting back on my feet," smiles Washington, who will receive her last $524 welfare check next month. Now, the high school graduate is looking forward to a career helping children with disabilities.
"I want to do something with my life," she says.
Washington is the latest of 80 women trained as home day care providers by the Acre Family Day Care Corp. in Lowell, which offers an extensive, 240-hour program of classwork, internships, and job support. Costing about $3,500 per person, the program is uniquely tailored to serve Lowell's ethnically diverse welfare community of African-Americans as well as Hispanic and Southeast Asian immigrants, who receive bilingual training.
"Clean-up, clean-up, everybody do your share," sings Nancy Nunez, a Puerto Rican immigrant who is now part of Acre's network of family child care workers. After straightening up her working-class neighborhood duplex, Ms. Nunez and two-year-old Arismendi Bato play baseball in the backyard.
Nunez and Washington both say they were inspired by Acre's training to launch careers in child care - and to become better parents themselves. "You learn about behavioral problems, so I understand my son a lot more now," says Washington, whose boy has speech difficulties.
One recent morning, Washington was clearly enjoying herself as she sat at her kitchen table helping four-year-old Fabian Ruerberro glue magazine clippings into a homemade book. Next she served a healthful snack - raw vegetables - for which she is reimbursed by a state food grant.
"I want the trees!" Fabian piped up, reaching for a piece of broccoli.
Not all days go smoothly. Sometimes, when the children are cranky, Washington calls the Acre office "just to hear an adult voice and get some sanity."
Still, there are plenty of special moments which make the job worthwhile. Recently, Washington was able to coax Katrina, a three-year-old in a cast, to walk on her own. "I felt like she was my own child," she says. "These kids some days can light up your life."