Truly the highlight of our year so far was spending the day in Tucson, Arizona with Irene, Angelina and Emily, who so graciously took us on a tour of the YWCA of Southern Arizona and the colorful murals in the city’s core.
We met the YWCA team and Emily Wilson, the Program Manager of Pathways for Single Moms, a program offered in partnership with the Women’s Foundation for the State of Arizona (WFSA) and YWCA Southern Arizona. Along with Emily, we met and interviewed Irene and her daughter Angelina, who participate in the Pathways Program. The program enables single mothers to earn a credit-bearing Career & Technical Education (CTE) certificate, preparing them for careers in growing fields that pay a thriving wage. This includes wraparound services such as coaching, planning and community support.
They are also enrolled in (BCT) IBEST, the Building and Construction Technologies IBEST Certificate Program through Pima Community College. The BCT Integrated Education and Skills Training (IBEST) Certificate program provides students with the skills needed for the construction sector, while improving the skills needed for academic and career success. Angelina, one of Irene’s two children, is currently the youngest student in the IBEST program.
Irene and Angelina not only are working towards their degrees, they are planning to start their own handywoman construction company together as they continue to learn various aspects of the trade.
EMILY: YWCA facilitates the Pathways Program in Southern Arizona and Women’s Foundation for the State of Arizona is the foundation that provides the funding. The program was piloted by WFSA. Once the program’s “Pilot phase” was complete last year, it went statewide! So now there are 3 state partners to serve single moms throughout AZ- YWCA of Southern AZ (Tucson and surrounding areas), Dress for Success Phoenix (Phoenix and surrounding areas), and Coconino Community College (Flagstaff/ Northern AZ) .
The students could take a traditional route or they could do this adult education piece that is the IBEST program.
The difference is that IBEST offers some additional soft skill training for those who are returning to school after being out for a while.
Currently the majority of our participants go that IBEST route.
The other piece, as far as Pathways is concerned, is the cohort building piece. The networking, we talk a lot about; that they want to build their network now because they're all going to be in the field together and want to have that- good wow, versus bad wow- when they go apply for positions. So, we do a lot of extra courses and workshops.
MOLLY (Dovetail Marketing Manager): So, it's really a lot of community connections, it sounds like, between individuals, and then the groups that are supporting, that's awesome.
EMILY: Yeah, the whole program is, and then we will be building those connections with the workforce as well for hiring employers in the field, in the trades, and then we're going to be working with unions and different apprenticeship programs.
We want the community to know that when they need to hire someone, they should look to us to hire. We talk a lot too about how, who's better prepared to go do these jobs with the attention to detail, and all this other stuff going around them, than a single mom who's multitasking constantly.
They're like the CEO of their household doing all the things.
MOLLY: Irene, How did you come to participate in the Pathways single mom's program and get connected with this group?
IRENE: Through Pima County Community College. They're the ones who referred me out to all the programs that I'm in.
MOLLY: What is your program at Pima? Is that like the trades program?
IRENE: It's an IBEST program that assists with the program that I'm taking right now for the carpentry.
MOLLY: Are you planning on doing General Construction, or is there a specialty in carpentry that you found? Or are you kind of learning it all right now?
IRENE: Just learning it all right now. This will be our second semester. So we're going into blueprint reading, that’s exciting. That is very new to us. I originally started out in home repair. So, drywall, drywall taping.
That's where I got interested in carpentry. I saw it online. I said, Hey, why not? You know? I tried to go into programs - training programs. I didn't have any luck.
I even went into a boots program with the union. I had traveled to California. I didn't know it was going to be this military boots thing. They had us carrying heavy material all over a field. It was really intense.
Because I wanted to get into the union, and I wanted it so bad, that I traveled to California.
But, that didn't work out, so that's when Pima came up, I said, okay, I want to get in somewhere, or another, you know?
I would take my daughter sometimes with me, so she kind of was interested in it as well. So I'd say, “Hey, you know what, you want to do this and you want to go together?”
And not only the carpentry. She's also getting her high school degree at the same time.
MOLLY: Right, you got your GED, is that right? Are you completing it now?
ANGELINA: Yeah, same time.
MOLLY: So you’re doing both programs. What is that like, comparing contrasting, the classroom versus a trades education?
ANGELINA: Well, I kind of study for the GED test online. I don't have any classes for that yet. But just combining both of them, it's kind of hard in the beginning, but you totally get used to it. It becomes a routine.
IRENE: So basically everything she's learning right now, because we have our technical math, like, it's all helping her. So that's how it goes hand in hand. So they're kind of like one stone, two birds.
MOLLY: How long is the program? Two semesters now and then another year?
IRENE: We should be graduating by September of this year. 
MOLLY: Oh wow, so sweet.
IRENE: Yes, our certificate – which we plan to turn into an associate's degree – we're not sure if we're going to go through the HVAC or electrician [program].
Yeah, so that's only three credits. So, hopefully by the end of the year, we'll have our associates for that.
And, then again, of course, continuing with this [construction] business, I'm gonna be going to college until 2025.
I already have my degree plan to study the business side of it. I'm still learning all the technical words for it and whatnot, but that's the plan.
MOLLY: So, that'll be the classes here, then, in this space. [YWCA]
IRENE: Yeah, I guess just kind of double dipping everywhere because the other programs kind of have something similar. So just anywhere I can get knowledge I’m going to be there.
MOLLY: Angelina, are you also studying on the business side?
ANGELINA: Yeah, I mean, I am going to help her with the business so I do need to study for it.
MOLLY: What was the inspiration when you two decided - because your ultimate goal, right, is to start a business together.
How did that come about? Was it a big dream you were talking about?
IRENE: Well, it started out with going to college.
And then as we were in class, they started telling us about how much money you can make. There's so many trades in the construction industry. It's just, you can go and take it so many ways.
And now we started reading about the contractor side. So I was like, you know, I want to do that. It pays well and all I need to do is get certified and really go to school.
So why not? And if you do something you might as well do it big, or go home. So that was how I came about it.
And then I started talking to her and said, "Hey, what if we just do a business?"
And my son, he’s twelve years old. And the reason why I think about getting my business is because I think about them. Being a single mom is hard.
It's hard when you really don't have anyone to depend on and your family is so small, and your circle is really small. But that was one of my inspirations for them, so they can have a future.
MOLLY: So to that point, how have the trades – and this education so far – empowered you both as a mom and then a working woman, and what are the changes you've seen in those areas?
IRENE: It's just positive – more knowledge, more power. It's just this whole experience that gets me excited every day to learn something new and just to do it.
MOLLY: What about you, Angelina? How are the trades empowering you in your life as a teen?
ANGELINA: I started going to work with her and from there I got interested in it. So, learning more and more about it, I was really interested from the start. When you're interested in something and you learn it, it sticks with you.
MOLLY: So, you've had Dovetail clothing for a short while, but what do you think? How do you think that having workwear designed for women is going to impact your work going forward?
IRENE: It’s going to impact it in a positive way. There's the style, the fit, the pockets, even the stitching is great. You can tell that it is such good workwear. She doesn't wanna wear any other pants.
She’s like, “Mom, I'm sorry, but I'm just wearing these kind of jeans now.” (pointing to her Britt No Fade) I'm like, no way, 'cause she's so difficult. Like her jeans, she's always saying, “I don't like these.”
She's always had a lot of issues with it, but she tried those on and she was like, “Mom, oh my God.”
Especially all the pockets, the hammer on the side. And that's going to help me, because when I wear a tool belt for the tools - I won’t have to wear a belt with the pants so that's something they have already in there. You can fit all your little things in the pockets.
So, I love them. I wouldn't go to work without them. They’re warm. The fit, the texture. They're nice. They're top quality, you can tell.
MOLLY: Nice! What does a typical day at work look like for both of you?
IRENE: It's just kind of on the go. Always on the go, go, go.
You gotta schedule yourself, right? And make sure you're there on time. Try to juggle everything, picking up my son, going to work, going to school.
It’s just very fast paced and exciting, sometimes stressful, but that is a lot and I mean she is a teenager, you know, going to college, but it's a challenge that I look forward to every day.
MOLLY: Do you have a lot of online classes right now? Is it kind of hybrid?
ANGELINA: Yeah, there's not too many, but I have a few of them.
MOLLY: So, day to day you're at home. What does your day look like Angelina?
ANGELINA: Well, I usually stay with my brother or I go to work with her sometimes.
IRENE: Yeah, she's second mom when Mom’s not home.
MOLLY: What are you guys doing when you're not working hard? How do you have fun together?
IRENE: We enjoy our time at home. Our beds are the best place to be. We just want to rest.
MOLLY: Yes, I love that.
IRENE: Yeah, because it's always something, you know, housework or, you know, we just enjoy that time we get to spend at home. Whether it be watching a movie, just making dinner.
We don't go out much. We like to stay at home and be together.
MOLLY: And then our thing at Dovetail is “Get Dirty”. So what's been your dirtiest day on the job or in training so far in terms of dust and dirt?
IRENE: I was working a couple weeks ago. I was putting on metals and that's really messy. You get mud all over the place.
So, I think that's one of the messiest. Because drywall taping is really messy.
The texture and everything, you're always just working with mud. So, that has to be the messiest that you can get. You're sanding. You're with the mud. I mean, sometimes I'm all full of mud, even to my tennies and everything. But yeah, that's as dirty as it's going to get.
MOLLY: What brought you to drywall specifically? Is there a part of the process you really like?
IRENE: Yeah, ever since I started, I was volunteering for a friend. I just instantly loved the job.
And I've held a lot of different jobs before. I was a home care provider for many years. I worked with the county as an office assistant. I was a manager for a company that managed like five, six different Walmart's in the Bay Area. I did territory sales lead and I prepared taxes. I do a lot more, but my point is, out of all these things that I have experienced and even being a bartender - I love doing home repair.
And it's therapeutic as well. It constantly changes. Every day is different. It's never going to be the same. So that's something I like as well – being out in the field, you know.
EMILY: Do you feel comfortable talking at all about like, just a short version of what your history was that led you to Tucson prior to going to school?
IRENE: Well, I was born in Río Rico and I had moved over here to Tucson and then moved to California. And then when COVID came, San Francisco closed. And that's when I had moved over here. (Tucson)
I did end up homeless.
Not too long ago – last year – they didn't renew my rent. They had told me that I would be able to renew month to month. They left me in a situation where my kids had to go to California with my dad. I stayed here because I had a job. And that was the only thing keeping me here.
So, I was able to get into a program. And they housed me and that's where I'm at right now. I've been in there for six months.
That was a really tough time in my life. I didn't know what I was gonna do. The only thing I knew that I had to do was work, and just keep it going, see what I can get into.
And, once I got into that program with the county - I said, okay, I'm not going to let this happen again. I'm going to do everything that I gotta do. And I think that's when everything like that school came in and just really started like - this is never gonna happen to me again.
My kids are not gonna be homeless. I think that's what pushes me a lot, as well, because I wouldn't want that to happen again.
The program that I'm in is really helping me out a lot and so I'm taking advantage of it and I'm going to school and I'm just trying to do everything I can.
MOLLY: Yeah, it's kind of gutting – you were working so hard and everything was already happeningand it still didn't work. So tough.
IRENE: I've had a long history of obstacles; me being a single parent, or even when I was married, I had to end up taking care of my husband because he came down with meningitis.
So, it's always been tougher. I always had to work two jobs, go to school in the midst of all that.
I mean, my mom and I got our high school diplomas together because I would take her with me to work. We were home care providers together. We did that Walmart thing together. So, I've always looked after my mom, as well, to make sure she’s ok.
MOLLY: So, you have a family history of working. It's kind of like now you're getting to work with your daughter and continue that. That’s special.
IRENE: Yeah, I don't think that my mom would have got that [diploma], you know, if it wasn't for me just, you know, giving her that positive feedback, she can do it. And, we did it together.
There's a lot of obstacles that we've been able to overcome, and it just makes me stronger.
EMILY: I mean, she's done an amazing job of tracking down resources, advocating for herself, and really just building the road that she needs to travel down.
It's impressive to watch. And she is an inspiration to the other moms in the program and to the team. The whole picture, the fact that you two are going together, all of it is just so amazing.
So yeah, I'm excited that they've got this opportunity. But I know that any opportunity that's available, Irene will go after it and get it.
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