THE BRONX — Marjorie Brailsford, a 49-year-old mother of three from Wakefield, was going through a tough time when she first heard about NYC STEPS, a city program that provides computer and job training to survivors of domestic violence.
Authorities had just removed Brailsford's abusive husband from her home, and a domestic violence counselor at the Bronx Family Justice Center told her about the program. At first, she said, she was skeptical.
"I had no experience, not even with a typewriter," said Brailsford, who spent the last two decades cleaning corporate offices. "Every day I'm passing these secretaries, thinking, 'Can I do that?'"
Brailsford is one of 11 women who graduated Wednesday from the first Bronx class of NYC STEPS, which was launched last year in Queens and is expanding to Brooklyn this fall. Graduates and their families celebrated with a ceremony held at the Bronx Family Justice Center on East 161st Street.
A joint effort of the Mayor's Office to Combat Domestic Violence and the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), NYC STEPS is a 12-week program that seeks to empower victims of domestic abuse by providing them with the skills to become employable in the workforce, and financially independent.
"This program has been a life-changing experience for me," Brailsford said. "Even if I had been to a school, I don't think I would be successful like this."
NYC STEPS participants enroll in computer and technology courses, learning how to send e-mails and use software such as Microsoft Word, Outlook, PowerPoint and Excel. They also complete job-training classes that assist them on things like résumé-building, public speaking and how to ace a job interview.
"Job-readiness is a key tool for victims of domestic violence in achieving a life of self-sufficiency, and one that is free of abuse," said Yolanda Jimenez, Commissioner of the Mayor's Office to Combat Domestic Violence.
Like Brailsford, graduate Sophia, 43 — who asked that her last name not be used — said she knew nothing about computers before she enrolled in NYC STEPS. She'd once tried to use the laptops at the public library, which you can check out for an hour at a time, but couldn't figure it out and spent most of her 60 minutes staring at the screen.
"I sat there and I couldn't do nothing. I was afraid of pressing the wrong button, or damaging the computer," she said. "Now I'm able to go on the Internet, look for whatever I need, help my daughter with her homework. I'm proud of myself. It uplifts my spirits."
NYC STEPS has graduated 34 participants so far, with the current class at the Bronx Family Justice Center, and one class in Queens this year and another in 2011. The program works with a number of private partners — data management company NetApp, for example, donated laptops, while Microsoft provided free licenses for its software.
After graduation, the city's Workforce 1 offices will help participants look for jobs or apply to other educational or training programs.
Bronx graduate Terri Edwards, 31, said the courses have changed her life. She joined NYC STEPS after getting out of a long-term abusive relationship. At the time, she said, she had trouble even making eye contact during conversations with others.
"I was lost. I had no confidence in myself," she said. "When you're with someone for seven years who tells you you're stupid every day, you believe it."
Now, though, she feels ready to tackle the work-world.
"I can go out there, I can get a job," she said. "I'm excited. What else can I do? What else can I learn?"