Sitting calmly with two fellow certified nursing assistant students in a balloon-festooned room at Howard Community College, Virginia Muldrew betrayed none of the turmoil she was feeling -- until she got up to speak.
"I was in the middle of a breakup. I lost my home. I didn't have a job," the homeless 40-year-old mother of two tearfully told about 70 people attending Howard County Department of Social Services' first celebration for clients who have completed a mandatory two-week Employment Success Training Course.
But with the department's help, she has received moral and practical support, talking daily with Larry Pinkett, assistant director of family investment for the department, and getting rides from newfound friends in her nursing assistant classes. She finishes a nursing assistant course July 20 and hopes to get back on her feet and get a job.
"Thank you so much," Muldrew said, as she shared her experience now that she has made it through the training course, taught by Howard Community College instructors in partnership with the social services agency.
Sunday's ceremonies, featuring speeches by social services officials and people who completed the program, honored 10 graduates of the course, several of whom said they learned vital tips about writing a resume and finding a job -- even though some are college-trained and have worked for years.
In generally prosperous Howard County, they represent a small minority who need help after a job loss, family break-up or illness.
Charlene Gallion, director of social services in Howard County, said the graduation was intended as a morale booster and motivator to encourage people who are having serious problems to persevere and work on solving them.
"This is a first step in influencing your future," she told the group.
Gallion said people who apply for what is called Temporary Cash Assistance, are not disabled and have children older than one year must take the employment course. Howard typically has fewer than 100 people in that category at a time.
Speakers such as Vastoria "Tori" Anderson, 29, a single mother of four, serve as "role models" for those who have not found work, Gallion said.
Anderson grew up in Columbia and left college in Virginia to get married. Last winter, with children ages 2 to 8, her marriage broke up and she moved back home with her parents, she said. She took the employment course and, since March, has worked for social services in a clerical job.
"I, too, know what it's like not to want to get up," Anderson told the audience. Having to return to her parents' home was "frightening, discouraging and frustrating," she said.
It didn't help that her father, Osceola "Ozzie" Edmondson, who also spoke at the Sunday ceremony, is deputy director of training for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, the parent agency of the county Department of Social Services.
"I rest comfortably knowing how she was raised," Edmondson said later. "The foundation is there."
In his speech, he seemed to be talking as much to his daughter as to anyone else.
"How many of you are surprised you're here?" he asked. "Keep surprising yourself. Don't let anybody put you in a box."
Tori Anderson, who hopes to live independently again in a year or two, acknowledged that she still had a bit of a chip on her shoulder when she was required to take the employment training course.
"My attitude was, 'I know how to get a job. I know how to write a resume,'" but she learned valuable tips in the course, she said.
Juanita Jackson, 57, of Columbia said she was embarrassed to go to social services for help after losing her job in a management shake-up last year.
"I've worked all of my life," she said, and also was working on a four-year college degree. She got a new job for a while but lost it after an injury.
"Going to social services at my age is sort of disgraceful," she said she felt. "I should have a house and be retiring from my job" after raising nine children.
Now she is looking for work again, and has put her college plans on hold.