Debra Roberts has resiliently dealt with depression, homelessness, poverty and tragedy in her life, but nothing can stop her from smiling about her future.
Hailing from Kansas, the 25-year-old came to Bakersfield in 2016 to start over. Her son, at five-and-a-half months, died of sudden infant death syndrome, and with another child on the way, she wanted to leave the past behind.
But tragedy struck again, with her second son's death at just 18 days old, and she found herself living on the streets with her significant other.
"We didn't really know what to do," Roberts said.
She gave birth to her third son, but shortly after the police and Child Protective Services intervened. She found herself in Lerdo Jail for a year and a half, and with nowhere to go, was sent to The Mission at Kern County, the "best decision in my life," she said.
It led her to The Mission at Kern County’s residential Christian Life Discipleship Program, which has given her a brand new outlook on life, and eventually Bakersfield College's HireUp Project, a new program that aims to provide access to education to homeless individuals and get them on the path to employment in six months.
"They changed me from the inside out. Friends will say they will do things for you, but it's really God that'll put that change in your heart," she said. "I have a change in me that nothing can come against."
The program launched in January, said Endee Grijalva, a program manager for BC's adult education. President Sonya Christian and other college officials envisioned a practical program which uses educational offerings designed with intentional, well-rounded, entry-level job skills combined with select opportunities available through partners. Contributing partners include The Mission at Kern County, Bakersfield Homeless Center, City Serve, Adventist Health and Stria.
The first cohort has 24 students, ranging from 25 to 60 years old, who earn a basic office skills certificate, learn job skills, transition to employment and receive ongoing support from City Serve. Graduation is expected to take place in April.
“The opportunity to receive an education has the power to transform lives. At Bakersfield College, faculty and staff do not stray away from difficult situations; instead, we are bridge builders who create powerful coalitions that are crucial to solutions in action,” said Christian. “HireUp is a great example of team players and partners who want to bring the best of what we can offer, creating an efficient pipeline of skills, certifications and opportunity for gainful employment.”
Another individual who found his way to the program is Cecil Williams, 33, from Visalia. In his 20s, he became a father, had a drug addiction, was homeless and described himself as "not being a man about anything I was doing."
When his 5-year-old daughter told him she was afraid she too would lose her way in life, he decided to make a change. A friend of his told him about the programs available at The Mission at Kern County, and he took a leap of faith.
Signing up for HireUp put him on the path to learning office skills, such as how to create powerpoints and spreadsheets, give presentations, build a resume and write a thank you letter. He said he enjoyed being back in the classroom — this time six hours a day twice a week — but completing assignments was still a pain.
Roberts also was able to put the office skills she learned to good use in her current position at The Mission. She calls various organizations around town for donations, and her class taught her what information is important to include in an email and voice message.
With the class portion completed, Roberts and Williams recently received news that will change their lives completely: They were hired. Roberts will work at BC's accounts and records department, while Williams was hired as a document preparation specialist at Stria.
He didn't think he would be where he is today, but he was committed to change and making his daughter proud.
"I was really ecstatic (when I got the job) ... I'm starting a new life. It's a second chance," he said.
Roberts is eager to start her new job and see what life has in store for her, the fresh start she's been wanting. "Despite everything that I've ever gone through, I know that it's God making roads in the wilderness and rivers in the desert."
Both are also interested in taking additional classes at BC, hopefully leading to an associate's or baccalaureate degree one day.
Grijalva said the program plans to offer additional certificates, such as ones in landscape design or food safety, and increase the number of cohorts in a school year in the future.