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The Resource Center for Women // An island of hope

Daisy Bacher never thought it would happen to her.

Between last Christmas and Easter she lost her husband and job. The 48-year-old Largo woman's husband asked her for a divorce and then closed the restaurant where the two had worked together for seven years.

"Everything broke up at once," she said. "I am a strong woman, but I felt like I was thrown out."

Bacher's familiar story echoes those of other women who emerge from broken marriages and try to start over. The 1990 Census recorded one out of every six American women as a "displaced homemaker," someone who has lost her income through divorce or the death of her spouse. And the number is growing. Between 1980 and 1990 it increased to 17.8-million from about 14-million.

An increasing number of these women need help finding work, especially as the federal government changes welfare laws to get more people off of public assistance and into jobs.

Locally, Bacher and about 700 other women a year find that help at the Resource Center for Women, a Largo-based non-profit organization founded 20 years ago to help women return to the work force.

Organizations like the resource center earn high marks. "Unless women have those kinds of services that do ground them and get them started in the right direction, they are not going to have much success finding a job," said Jill Miller, co-executive director of Women Work, a national women's network.

The women come to the center from all rungs on the economic ladder, from urban poverty to suburbia's upper-middle class. Here, they are all equal and search for ways to cobble together a new life from the remnants of the old.

"Most of them come with the same problems" _ a lack of self-esteem and skills to land a decent job, said Cheryl A. Roccio, a counselor at the center. And they ask the same question: "How are we going to survive?"

Bacher didn't expect to end up among them. Growing up in Switzerland, her goal was to "see the big world." Instead, she went to work in a series of apprenticeships in her homeland. She worked as a secretary, massage therapist and jewelry saleswoman. At one point, she worked as a model, a job that suited the slender, 5-foot-9 woman.

After meeting her husband-to-be, Armin, she came to the United States in 1977. He was a chef and she followed him from restaurant to restaurant, often working two shifts a day. Seven years ago, they started their own restaurant in Largo.

The pair worked nights, holidays and weekends to build their business. So she was surprised when he asked her for a divorce in July 1995. "All that time I said it's never going to happen to me; then, guess what?" she said.

Armin Bacher said it is difficult to maintain a marriage with both partners working so many hours for so many years. "We had no private time," he said.

Their divorce was final just before Christmas. By Easter the business was closed and Armin was pursuing another career.

Daisy Bacher was out of a job and began to slip into a deep depression. Her life had revolved around her marriage and the business. Even her friendships were linked to the restaurant. Most of her friends were married, and she felt like a fifth wheel socializing with happy couples.

"They don't want to hear about your troubles," she said. One day she ran into a friend, Cindy Kelly, who urged her to visit the resource center.

Initially, Bacher wasn't sure she belonged there, but she knew that it was time to try something.

She joined 11 other women, who had their own stories of love, loss and hardship. Gathered around long tables, they began a six-week course designed to help them find jobs.

The women sat quietly as they listened to instructors Roccio and Zellah Cleaver explain the class schedule and rules.

Roccio tried to make them feel at ease.

"This is a place where you can be safe," said Roccio, who teaches the personal growth portion of the class. "Please speak up. There is no judgment here."

The room was silent as Roccio warned the women that changing their lives would be difficult. She told them not to complain; everybody has their own struggles. She offered her own story of quitting her job as a legal secretary after 17 years to put herself through college. It took years of sacrifice to get her master's degree. "So when you tell me, "I can't,' I am going to tell you, "Yes, you can.' "

During the course, the women are counseled on matters beyond finding a job. For starters, many need help rebuilding their self-esteem. Many of them lack emotional as well as financial support. "If they are emotionally deficient, then it is going to be very difficult for them to keep that job," Roccio said.

After the first meeting, the women began to open up and offered glimpses into their lives. Male-bashing was common.

Roccio had to frequently remind them that all men are not inherently evil, but it was easy to get a distorted perspective when listening to the women and their list of complaints.

"How many of you have ever picked up your husband's underwear from off the floor?" Roccio asked the women during a session on assertiveness training. A lot of the women raised their hands.

Did they consider that demeaning? The room was silent until Michele Harper, one of the most gregarious in the group, spoke up. The underwear question jogged a childhood memory. In her family, men and boys ate on china and women and girls ate on paper plates.

"Can you believe that?" Harper asked, sounding annoyed as she tapped the table with her finger.

That opened the floodgates. Others in the group shared their stories about how differently they were treated from their brothers growing up. Roccio recalled how her mother would cook a steak for her son when he returned home late. The girls got eggs.

While some vented inside the classroom, the real anger flowed outside during breaks. Here, the women often told stories of their broken marriages. One said her husband now dates their son's teacher. Another husband left to join a woman he met while cruising on the Internet. Several talked about abusive relationships.

For some, the class is a time to help them figure out whether to try again with their husbands. Harper is wondering if she should patch up her marriage. Life at home with her two boys was tough without the help of a partner. One night her oldest son screamed at her, accusing her of driving his father from the house.

Money was a problem. The family had sunk into debt after expensive purchases, such as a motorcycle and pickup truck. Efforts to sell them were not going well, and their roof had sprung a leak big enough to stain the living room ceiling.

While some of the women in the class were struggling to pay the bills, others lamented that they will lose some of the pampered perks of their old lives.

"I have given up my maid. I am not giving up my manicures," class member Joanne Frank said. She is going through a divorce and spent a lot of time during class breaks talking about court battles. She vowed that she will "take care of myself and my kids now. I will never, never be dependent again."

Besides finding others who have gone through similar breakups, the women learn some basic life-management skills. There are lessons from a financial coach on how to live within a budget, a chore that is familiar to some, foreign to the once-privileged members of the group.

Some need some tips on dressing for a career on a budget. For starters, the women can pick out clothes from those donated to the center. Most find conservative suits or dresses for job interviews.

During a visit to a consignment shop, the women glanced at the more boring career clothes before darting to more interesting offerings.

The petite, tanned Harper stepped out of the dressing room wearing a lipstick-red, midriff-baring cotton-knit party dress.

"What do you think?" she asked.

An admiring throng gathered.

"You look great!" they told her. She wasn't convinced, studying herself in the mirror. "I'm not sure," she said, wrinkling her nose. She decided not to buy the dress.

Near the end of their course, the women planned a special graduation celebration. They decided on a lunch of veal, polenta and all the trimmings, prepared by Bacher and others.

The women arrived dressed in their Sunday best. Most had traded their shorts and sandals for dresses and high heels. Despite the festivities, many said they didn't feel like celebrating. They ate at the same tables where they had spent so many hours sharing their stories. The classroom had become an island of peace and hope. Soon they would be out in the real world again.

The women were each asked to share some thoughts during the ceremony.

"I found hope again," said Harper. "I look forward to the future."

"I have self-assurance again, much more than before," Bacher said. "The only one that controls my life is myself."

"I know that I am responsible for my own happiness," Frank said. "I can be happy again."

About one-third of the women who attend the program find jobs within six weeks of graduation. Another third will enroll in school for more job training. The remaining third are still in limbo, waiting to start a job or another training course.

More than two months after Frank graduated from the summer class, she is still searching for some direction and happiness. "I guess I am still not there yet," said the mother of two as she stirred a dinner of macaroni and cheese.

At first, she was sad about her July 1995 split with her husband. Now she's just angry. Their divorce proceedings aren't final.

Frank says stress has caused her to lose weight, enough to shrink from a size 12 dress to a 2. She has given up her Danielle Steel novels for self-help and child-rearing books. She said she borrows money from her mother to help her maintain her old lifestyle. She insists that her children will remain in private school and they will grow up in their big house with the swimming pool.

Her husband, Richard Frank, says that he has been a good provider for his family, both emotionally and financially, and believes that his wife isn't being candid about her financial circumstances. Nor was he happy that she was sharing her story. "I feel that this is a family tragedy that should be handled privately," he said.

Joanne Frank has gone back to work part-time at a school to help pay tuition. She has worked at banks and considered applying for a job at Raymond James Financial Inc. after a company representative visited the class. But she decided she couldn't handle a full-time job and still be at home when her children needed her.

"I need my life in order before I can pursue a job again," she said. "I am told that one day I will wake up and be fine."

She misses the camaraderie of class, and remembers the six weeks fondly when she drives by the resource center. "But I guess at this point nobody can help me but myself."

Harper found a job at a plumbing supply company. It's not her dream job, but it helps pay the bills. She thinks about going back to school to become a sign language interpreter.

The course gets high marks from her husband, Scott. "I think it's a good program," he said. As a paramedic, he sees a need for programs to help women. During his rounds, he often sees women living in sub-standard housing and struggling to support their children. The Harpers are working to resolve their problems with the help of a counselor.

Bacher found a job teaching welfare recipients about food and nutrition at the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension Service within three weeks after graduation. She sees it as the first step toward another career. "And I love it," she said.

The class helped her realize she wasn't alone. "Everybody in that class was sitting in that same boat," she said. The resource center "helped me so much in a short time to learn that I can stand on my own two feet and to say, "I can do it.' "

As for her marriage, Bacher said she is not interested in reuniting with her husband. "I have read the studies," she said. Only about 10 percent of people who try again after divorce make it.

She couldn't imagine going through the split all over again. "For me I had to make a new life," she said, "and I am still working on it."

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