PENDLETON --- In the fall of 2013, Tara Williams, a 36-year-old single mother struggling to make ends meet, got what she calls "The Letter."  For the third time in three years, she was facing another job layoff, this time due to a plant closure.

"It seemed I was always the last one hired and first to go," she said.  This setback came at a particularly bad time.  Recently divorced, she was living with her parents, struggling financially and dealing with some health issues that had begun to surface with her then four-year-old son.  She had no back-up plan.   "It was harrowing. It was heavy.  It was not what I needed at that point in my life.  I was trying to get back on my feet. Now I was facing joblessness - again," said the West Union resident.

She told herself she was marketable - she did have a degree in business, along with a wide skill set that included work experience in tax preparation, bookkeeping and as a supervisor.  And she is bilingual.  "I had done a little bit of everything yet I couldn't find a job.  And the bills were mounting," she said. 

After filling out countless job applications, she had one interview for an administrative assistant's position with the Department of Juvenile Justice.  She was among the top three contenders for the job.  But when it came down to the wire, she didn't get the job because an administrative office degree was preferred. 

It was then she realized it was imperative that she obtain training to get back into the workforce in a stable job.  She learned that dislocated workers could go back to school through federal funding from WIA (Workforce Investment Act) and the Trade Act (TRA).  WIA and TRA funds pay for tuition, books and supplies, in addition to a weekly gas stipend.

"That moment, when I was giving up hope, God gently nudged me to go back to school," she said. 

So at age 38, a "terrified" Williams applied for admission to Tri-County Technical College and submitted an application for a Pell grant.  She waited and checked her tuition balance on Tri-County's website daily.  With the deadline nearing and no word about the Pell grant, she knew there was a real possibility she would have to forego her chance at college. 

Just in time, on December 30, 2013, she received confirmation of a Pell grant.  "That opened a door for me," she said.

"The first day of school was rough. I started to quit that first week because I did not know how to work Blackboard (the College's online learning management system). Luckily I had an awesome instructor who took time out of the class each day to show us a little bit about Blackboard so we could submit assignments.  I was so thankful for that instructor and all my other instructors, too.  Everyone went out of his or her way to help us succeed and I knew that early on, I would make professional contacts that would help me out in the long run."

She surprised herself and earned a spot on the President's List (4.0 G.P.A.) the first semester. "That gave me the motivation to keep going," she said.  Soon after she enrolled in classes with Ripple of One, a non-profit organization in Oconee County, and secured an internship as an administrative assistant with the Foothills YMCA.  Ripple of One helps single mothers set goals and values that help establish a better way of life.  By creating stability through a family success plan, they move toward the ultimate goal of self sufficiency.

 "They teach us how to set goals and how to manage and save money.  They teach you how to get back on your feet.  But we have to do the work," she said.  There are financial incentives geared toward saving money, such as a matching savings program (the organization will match an individual's savings up to $200 a month.)   Those funds will be presented to her at graduation.

They also provide paid internships, like Williams is participating in with the Foothills YMCA.

There are parenting and finance classes --  even basic car repair classes that have been invaluable, she says, all aimed at preparing you to be stable and independent.

 It worked.

In just one year she has gone from zero savings and deep debt to  

minimal bills and a savings account.  "We learn not to make excuses anymore but instead to take charge of our lives," she said.  With a financial coach and mentor, individuals work on making little changes that can result in big dividends.

As a result, she has settled all of her debt. Through the internship she has gained a paycheck, as well as many life skills.  "Ripple of One helped me to find stability in my personal life as well.  I started to apply the same principles in my personal life," said Williams.

Foothills YMCA Executive Director Christle Ross, who has worked with Williams since last September, commended her self motivation and communication skills.  "She is a great employee and quite capable.   We've been on the sidelines doing our part with the internship, but Ripple of One has done a phenomenal job. Through her involvement with Ripple of One, we have seen such growth in her  --   she is coaching and counseling new persons in the program.  She will be a mentor to others," said Ross.

"Tara is an amazing person.  She is working through her issues.  She is strong and I commend her for her strength and determination," Ross added. 

Stephanie Enders, executive director of Ripple of One, said, "When I met Tara, she was struggling financially and emotionally.  We became her support system," she said.  With the help of a mentor, a financial coach and other team members, Enders noticed a real change in Williams and her circumstances.  "We knew she had the drive and intelligence to succeed.  With her degree, she won't have a problem finding a job.  She will be great at anything she takes on.  We are so proud of her and it has been amazing to see her make this transformation."

At the beginning of her second semester at Tri-County, Williams's son was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.  She made weekly trips to doctors and hospitals in Greenville. "I still came to school and my teachers were very understanding of my struggle," she said.  That August she was rushed to the emergency room and diagnosed with diverticulitis.  She managed to maintain her President's List status. "Despite everything, seeing my son in pain, going to doctors, driving endlessly some days, I had succeeded in school.  That made me feel very good going into my third semester," she said.

She continued working part time at the internship, making weekly trips to Greenville.  In October, her son fell and broke his elbow.  That resulted in more weekly appointments with doctors  -- another crisis to deal with.  This time around, she was better prepared to handle life's unexpected events.  She relied on the coping skills and stress reduction techniques she learned through Ripple of One. 

It was then she made the decision to work toward earning a medical office certificate along with her Administrative Office Technology degree.  "It was something that became really important to me.  I want to work in a medical office.  I want to help people get to where they need to be.  Maybe along the way, I can help someone realize what God's will is for his or her life, too," said Williams. 

Now just two days away from graduation, she can see the light at the end of the tunnel despite more medical emergencies (In January she was rushed to the hospital for gallstones and had laparoscopic surgery right before final exams). 

"This whole school thing started with just a dream, she said. "It was a request from God to dream and do something with my life.  Even if I don't get a glamorous job or get paid big bucks, I would not trade this experience of being able to go to school and get another degree for anything in this world.  I have learned so much.  I think I learned more outside of the books rather than inside them.  One thing I do know is that what I have learned is priceless.  I will never get another chance like this and I thank God for this opportunity to experience this.  When I walk across that stage in May, I know that I will not walk alone.  I will have my Savior with me and all my teachers by my side, being proud of a job well done despite the struggles, diagnoses and frustrations."

AOT Program Coordinator Beverly Vickery will be one of these instructors.  When it was time to discuss nominations for the Outstanding Graduate Award, she and other instructors unanimously voted for Williams to receive the award in April.  "Tara walked in class every day ready to learn.  She asks questions and is very invested in her education.  She keeps us on our toes, as instructors," said Vickery.  "She excels in everything she does. It's more than just going to school for her.  She is thankful for the opportunity to come to school and gives back to the people who have helped her along the way.  She doesn't hesitate to help someone else who is struggling." 

Williams says she broke into tears when she received the letter informing her she was the program's outstanding student.  "I read it and I got emotional because I have fallen down and gotten back up - several times," she said.  That affirmation of her hard work "is the best thing that happened to me at Tri-County."

Several weeks later she was inducted into the Alpha Zeta Beta honor society with Enders present in the audience to witness yet another milestone.

Enders and Ross will be at graduation, also, when she receives a degree in AOT and five certificates, all accomplished in a year and a half.

"I will have a degree I can use and I've accomplished things I never thought I could do," said Williams.

She's applying for jobs, recuperating from surgery and focusing on getting her son well.  She has a goal of working at a "dream job" for a non-profit like Ripple of One. "I needed to be stronger person --  that's why I went through my struggles. I want to help others see they can do things, too."

Williams says she has lots of thank yous to extend at the end of this journey -- to her bosses at Ripple of One and the Foothills YMCA, for teaching her valuable life lessons; and to Tri-County instructors Vickery and Lesley Olsommer, whom she can turn to for job references or as friends.

Though she didn't realize it when it happened, Williams says she is thankful for the job layoff in 2013 that set her on a path to pursuing a degree and ended with financial stability and independence.