When she first enrolled in Project LeeWay, twenty-two-year-old Hilda Trujillo could not bring herself to look her classmates or teachers in the eye. Ten years later, she held her head high and delivered the keynote address at the program’s 20th Anniversary Banquet.
“I am a survivor of domestic abuse,” she said. “I was in an abusive relationship for 10 years. I was a child-bride at 13 and had my first child four days after my fifteenth birthday. My husband never called me by my name, he called me ‘inepta,’ which in Spanish, means inept. I still don’t know how, but one day, by the grace of God, I found the strength to leave.”
Alone for the first time in her life, and with two sons to support, Trujillo struggled to make ends meet. “I applied for a job at a grocery store, but I only had a sixth grade education and no work experience, so they wouldn’t hire me. I never planned to go to college. I just wanted to get a GED so I could go to work.”
Though it had been 10 years since she had last seen a classroom, Trujillo completed a GED program in three short months. The accomplishment caught the attention of then GED instructor Karen Smithson, who encouraged her to pursue post-secondary education.
“I was never raised to believe that I could be anything more than a wife, than my husband’s servant,” Trujillo explained, “so I never thought college would be possible. But Ms. Smithson believed in me. She met me at Lee College, and walked around with me until we found the Project LeeWay office. She did all the talking with Ms. Fleming, and convinced her to let me in the program.”
Funded by a Carl Perkins grant, the Project LeeWay program helps low-income students seeking technical careers, single parents, displaced homemakers, and single pregnant women gain access to vocational and technical education and training at Lee College.
A special Quickstart component provides students with six weeks of intensive training in math, reading, writing, study skills and computer skills. Additional program components including career exploration and job search assistance, and support services such as childcare, textbook and transportation assistance, financial aid resource identification and tutoring are also provided.
Upon completing Project LeeWay a student is eligible to enroll at Lee College, a prospect which Fleming now admits, she wasn’t sure Trujillo wanted.
“Hilda did not say a single word during our first meeting. She couldn’t even lift her head up, she stared at her hands the whole time Karen spoke,” she said. “I didn’t know if she really wanted to go to college, but I knew she deserved a chance.”
Once enrolled in the program, Trujillo threw herself into her studies, earning associate degrees in business management and accounting, and eventually transferring to Lamar University where she earned her bachelor’s degree in accounting, She is currently completing a master’s program in the field. Although she continued to be haunted by her past—repeated harassment by her ex-husband left Trujillo living in fear for many years—she credits the program with giving her the confidence she needed to move toward a better future.
“Project LeeWay was the stepping stone to everything I now have in my life,” she explained. “Ms. Fleming became more than a teacher; she became my second mother. Whenever I had a problem I knew I could go to her. She always had resources to help, and if she didn’t, she found a resource.”
The two have remained close in the years since Trujillo completed the program, she added, often meeting for coffee and discussing the challenges and triumphs of Trujillo’s new life, which now includes a loving marriage, three sons, a new baby girl, and a new outlook.
“There was a time in my life when I thought being a woman was curse, and I never wanted to have a daughter,” she said. “When you’ve been told, all your life, that you’re worthless, it’s hard to overcome. When I started Project LeeWay I was a sad, broken woman. But the program and the people made it easy for me to believe in myself. Now I’m getting my master’s and I’m able to teach my daughter that she can have a different life. I’m no longer a victim; I’m a survivor.”
For more information about the Project LeeWay program, contact Clare Fleming at 281.425.6559.
To hear more stories from former Project LeeWay students, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MiCIdyV-Kwo&feature=context-cha