- Associated Press - Saturday, January 21, 2017

ASTORIA, Ore. (AP) - Michelle Hartman, a 48-year-old single mother living in Warrenton, has been rebuilding her life after she and her two young children escaped domestic abuse less than three years ago.

Her apartment on Southwest Willow Drive is small, but lively and warm. Colorful plastic children’s toys seem always within reach. Hartman rules the household and dotes on her boys with the energy of a fiercely loving mama bear, reported The Daily Astorian (http://bit.ly/2k5jiXj).

She holds down two part-time cleaning jobs - one at the Liberty Theater, the other at Warrenton Christian Church - and has a work-study gig at Clatsop Community College, where she is earning an associate’s degree in general studies and plans to work with children who have suffered from abuse and neglect.

After a period of distress and uncertainty, Hartman is in a good place.

A crucial step in her journey, she said, was a one-day event she attended last year: The annual WINGS (Women Interested in Going to School) conference, designed for women looking to get their GED, attend college, acquire job skills or find a career. It is for women, like Hartman, who want to tear down barriers preventing them from pursuing their education and taking control of their lives.

This year’s conference will be held 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Feb. 11, at the community college’s Columbia Hall.

“Going back to school is basically, in this day and age, the answer, I think,” Hartman said. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t really know where you’re going, and you have kids, and you want to have a better future, go back to school - that’s it.”

WINGS - which is free and open to the public - offers breakfast, lunch and child care. Attendees hear stories from past participants and take part in workshops on the community college’s degree and certificate programs, securing financial aid and scholarships, overcoming math anxiety, career planning and more.

State Sen. Betsy Johnson is scheduled to kick off the conference with a motivational speech.

Getting unstuck

Before she escaped a dangerous relationship and relocated to the North Coast, Hartman aspired to become a preschool teacher and studied early childhood education at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington.

Through her experiences, she discovered that Columbia-Pacific communities have a shortage of organizations - outside the state Department of Human Services - that can arrange supervised visits between children and family members.

Last summer, she served at a VOCA (Victory Over Child Abuse) camp, which provides support for children who have been sexually abused.

Combining her background and expertise, Hartman’s goal is to start a business that provides supervised visitations in an early childhood education-type environment. “That’s where I’m hoping to be able to make a difference,” she said.

This chapter of her life, in which her dreams seem achievable, is the product of persistence, of little personal victories leading to bigger ones. “Each quarter is a new achievement,” she said.

The largest barrier for many women who want to go back to school, Hartman said, is child care. She recalls a friend, another mother, who attended WINGS and had not made it past eighth grade.

“Once you get a kid, and you don’t have your high school diploma, you’re stuck,” Hartman said.

WINGS - a partnership among the community college and the Seaside and Astoria branches of the American Association of University Women - is set up for women like that mother, empowering them to get unstuck.

“These women that are running the WINGS conference, it’s good to know that we have them,” Hartman said.

Part of something big

It has been a year since Hartman attended WINGS, which helped her secure a $4,000 entrepreneurial scholarship at Clatsop Community College. She takes one to three classes per quarter, and is finishing the nuts-and-bolts classes, like math and English.

She has noticed something interesting about self-confidence: It tends to build on itself, until a person who previously felt hopeless realizes she has succeeded in turning her life around - and a fear of failure is no longer operative.

“It’s a snowball effect, for sure,” she said. “Each class, and I get another A, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m doing good!’”

And an event like WINGS, she said, makes people feel as if they are part of something big, whether going to college or otherwise authoring their own destiny.

“Don’t be afraid to do it,” Hartman said, “because once you’re in there, you’ll feel so much better, just knowing that people care.”

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Information from: The Daily Astorian, http://www.dailyastorian.com

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