Settled in its new home, Berea's New Opportunity School for Women gears up for a new session

New Opportunity School for Women founder Jane Stephenson, left, executive director Lori Sliwa and a full clothing bank await the June class. The clothes are given to participants to wear to job interviews.
New Opportunity School for Women founder Jane Stephenson, left, executive director Lori Sliwa and a full clothing bank await the June class. The clothes are given to participants to wear to job interviews. LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

BEREA — In December 2011, when the headquarters of New Opportunity School for Women was smoldering after an arsonist set its building ablaze, the school's supporters already were planning to rebuild.

A year and a half later, the school is thriving again, this time in a suite of offices in First Christian Church on Berea's historic Chestnut Street corridor. It has replaced computers, books and program materials; and furniture, from desks to lamps, has been donated.

Although 2012 was the school's 25th anniversary, 2013 might be the year it is fully arisen from the ashes of the old building.

In fact, a quilt made last year by women attending New Opportunity School features a symbolic phoenix, a bird that rises from the ashes. Headed by the words "The House Jane Built," the quilt hangs in the conference room of the new offices. Nearby is a stack of Appalachian-themed books for the new class to read. For some, it is the first indication they have a culture worth discussing, writing about and celebrating.

The Jane to whom the quilt refers is school founder Jane Stephenson, whose late husband, John, was a noted Appalachian scholar and president of Berea College.

The school focuses on low-income middle-age women from Appalachia, many of whom married young, became young mothers, and lack the skills and education needed to raise themselves from poverty. It takes 14 women at a time for a three-week session that teaches them everything from self-esteem to literature, taking care of themselves medically to visiting the state Capitol. It also gives them clothing and accessories to wear to job interviews.

The program also has a dental fund for its participants. "You can't build your self-esteem and have no teeth," Stephenson said.

Soon it will be operating on four campuses: Berea; its first expansion site at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, N.C.; Bluefield College in Bluefield, Va.; and Maryville College in Maryville, Tenn.

Last spring a donor called and told director Lori Sliwa that the school was getting a $50,000 gift. Sliwa repeated the number. Did the donor mean $15,000, perhaps?

Nope. It was $50,000, said the donor, who wishes to remain anonymous. The gift was the largest single donation from a living individual, Stephenson said.

The school is gearing up for its June session, fully settled near the former headquarters that burned. And school officials learned last week that Gary Davidson of Louisville was sentenced in Madison Circuit Court to a total of 10 years in the arson and burglary case, and was ordered to pay restitution.

Although the fire was devastating, Sliwa said it brought the organization to top-of-mind awareness to potential donors who have given generously. The school's clothing closet, bigger than some apartments, is a thing of wonder, with bright fashionable suits paired with scarves, pins and jewelry.

"They come in and they don't know how smart they are, how talented they are ... and they leave a piece of themselves with us, and I love it," Sliwa said of the program's participants.

George Ann Lakes, a New Opportunity school alum who now works for the organization, knows how the students feel when they arrive.

"My mom only had a sixth-grade education. We just never had books. We played in the mountains. Education was not up front," she said.

In 1992, Jane Stephenson "allowed me to come with a stipulation that I go back" to school, Lakes said. And she did. Eventually Lakes got a master's degree in social work from the University of Kentucky.

Success for the women is difficult to define, the program's administrators said. Some might not be ready immediately to go back to school or start a business. But if the woman goes home knowing that a broader world is within her grasp, school administrators figure they've done their job.

Sliwa, who worked for the program at Lees-McRae before coming to Berea, cites a June 2011 graduate, who was 48 when she enrolled in the school. She had never voted.

"She voted in her first election last November," Sliwa said. "She is enrolled in college and getting all A's."

That kind of success is what Sliwa wants potential donors to know about.

"They're not supporting a program per se," she said. "They're supporting women."

The New Opportunity School for Women

Location: 204 Chestnut St., Berea; also locations in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee

Staff: Founded by Jane Stephenson; executive director Lori Sliwa


Read more: Changing Lives in Appalachia: The New Opportunity School for Women by Jane B. Stephenson (Jesse Stuart Foundation, $15)

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