There came a time in Cindy Ferguson's college life when she had almost dropped out of school. A student at Holyoke Community College, she didn't have a job and was running out of money. She couldn't afford the tuition to complete her degree. Financial insecurity led to academic stress.
A mother of six, she had lived in a homeless shelter before with her two youngest children. A housing subsidy had enabled her to get an apartment for her family, but they were at risk of falling back into homelessness.
For help, she turned to a new program called Secure Jobs Connect.
Secure Jobs Connect is a grant-funded, workforce development program that helps homeless parents overcome obstacles to employment, such as daycare, transportation, education and job certification. Since the program began in February 2013, Secure Jobs Connect has provided opportunities for more than 150 homeless parents to find jobs and secure stable housing.
"Secure Jobs Connect paid my bill, allowing me to continue with my education," said Ferguson.
Not only that, the program helped Ferguson find a full-time job as a production team manager with Savers thrift stores in Springfield. Even though her housing subsidy has expired, she can now afford to pay rent.
Ferguson told her story to a conference room full of legislators, municipal officials, business leaders and advocates for the homeless who had gathered in the HCC Kittredge Center Friday, Jan. 10, to celebrate the program's success.
"We have a model that gets parents into the workforce and out of homelessness," said Pamela Schwartz, director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness, which coordinates the program in collaboration with HAPHousing, CareerPoint and Future Works.
As part of the event, awards were presented to the program's many area business partners, including the Holyoke Community College Career Closet, which supplies dress clothes for students -- and Secure Jobs Connect participants -- for job interviews.
Jeffrey Hayden, vice president for HCC Business and Community Service and a member of the Secure Jobs Connect advisory committee, accepted the award on behalf of HCC.
Schwartz singled out HCC for special recognition for hosting Friday's event as well as last year's launch of the Secure Jobs Connect program.
"Thanks to HCC, a leading network partner in more ways than I can count," she said.
Ferguson, who is 49 years old and lives in Springfield, where she takes a PVTA bus to school every day, will graduate from HCC in May with a degree in human services. She plans to continue her education at Springfield College and ultimately become an advocate for victims of domestic violence.
"I'm proud of my accomplishments," Ferguson told the crowd. "I no longer worry about being homeless."
Photos: (Left) HCC student Cindy Ferguson with Lisa Lapierre, director of Secure Jobs Connect. (Right) Ferguson is interviewed by reporters from Springfield television stations.