GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — After surviving domestic violence, losing her home and nearly losing her teenaged son, a Grand Rapids woman said a local nonprofit has helped her lay out a path to emerge from homelessness.
In 2010, Eileen Smar’s 14-year-old son was hit by a truck while he was riding his bike. He suffered a severe brain injury.
“It changed everything about our lives,” Smar told News 8.
Smar was forced to quit her job to take care of her son full-time. He spent a long period at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital learning how to walk and talk again.
After her son’s injury, Smar faced abuse in her personal life. She survived domestic violence and was ultimately left without a home in Benton Harbor.
“It broke me and my self-esteem,” Smar said. “Then COVID struck and we were isolated. I became very depressed, just wasn’t myself at all.”
In January, she came to Grand Rapids to get help from Degage Ministries. She joined the nonprofit’s relatively new workforce development program.
“I hadn’t worked in over 10 years,” Smar said. “My self-esteem was down. My work skills were down. I did feel unemployable.”
The six-month program gave Smar a paid job as a cashier in the kitchen. She spent her time off-work inside Degage’s classrooms. Her teacher was Sharon Hayward, a career coach who joined the program in August 2023. Hayward focused her class on empowering women to recognize their value, equipping them with the tools to overcome self-sabotage and providing them a roadmap to get the job they deserve.
“By the end of the class, I could just see people wanted to be in the class,” Hayward told News 8. “They felt hope, they felt confident, they felt inspired and they felt a comradery with each other. It moves you to tears when they say, ‘I have hope.’”
“(We looked) at some of the things that hold you back,” she continued. “How can you recognize that pitfalls or obstacles and avoid them in the future? Start feeling your value. Figure out what you want.”
Smar said the class was like a therapy session. She remembers writing down three daily wins to focus on the positive things happening in her life.
“It really delves deep into what is blocking you and holding you back and what you can do to change that and succeed,” she said.
Hayward noticed that women became more comfortable and engaged as they realized they went through similar experiences.
“Other people felt the same way they did,” Hayward said. “Other people had the insecurities and some of the pain in the background. I was really excited about that. That was one thing I had not expected.”
Degage has served 250 clients since the workforce development program launched in late 2021. The services are free. Executive Director Thelma Ensink explained that program is split between internal and external aspects. In the internal phase, Degage employes people in its bakery, kitchen or thrift store. The external program helps people build their resumes and practice their interview skills. Degage also connects them with jobs in the area.
“It’s incredible to see how much individuals have been impacted by this program,” Ensink told News 8. “We have people who couldn’t really make eye contact or have been in abusive relationships or just had really difficult traumatic events in their lives.”
Smar has already applied to several jobs and said she has received “amazing feedback.” She once worked in the medical field and hopes to rejoin it as a medical receptionist or a unit clerk.
“I never thought it would happen for me again,” Smar said. “I didn’t think I was employable. Now I know I am. I can contribute something very positive.”
“They’ve changed my life completely for the better.”