Busy raising two children as a single mother, Rebeca Mariscal never believed that she would get the chance to return to school to polish her English skills.
"My self-esteem was really low," said the Mexico native, who now lives in Oxnard. "I didn't think I could make it to a higher-paying position."
Mariscal is one of 30 people chosen to participate in a pilot program at Oxnard College that will help her and others get off welfare.
The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved the $100,000 program, which will provide job training, placement and retention services for welfare recipients. Called "Beginning Careers," it will be funded by the U. S. Department of Labor's Job Training Partnership Act.
"Now I see a whole bunch of doors opening up for me," said Mariscal, who has enrolled in an English class, as well as typing and clerical classes. "Now I have hope and I know that I can make it."
Bruce Stenslie, the county's director of work-force development, said that if the program is successful after one academic year, the county may seek federal funding to continue it.
Similar programs might also be implemented at Ventura and Moorpark colleges, he said.
The program is one of many approaches that county officials are taking to move roughly 8,500 families--about 85% headed by single mothers--off welfare and into self-sufficiency.
County officials began stepping up their welfare-to-work efforts after state welfare reform began in January, mandating that current recipients find work within two years. Those new to the welfare rolls are restricted to 18 months on aid.
In February, county supervisors approved a sweeping welfare-reform package, adding 83 positions to the county's human services agency staff, paving the way for seven new "one-stop" career centers, and forging partnerships with other public and private agencies.
One of the one-stop centers is being built at Oxnard College, which serves the majority of welfare students attending the county's three community colleges.
Of the 30,500 students at the colleges, about 1,400 will collect welfare this academic year, said Cheryl Shearer, dean of economic development for the Ventura County Community College District.
Of that total, about half--a projected 665 students--are at Oxnard, while 539 are at Ventura College. At Moorpark, a projected 208 students will receive welfare aid this year, Shearer said.
Oscar Chavez, who is overseeing the program at Oxnard, said up to three passenger vans and district drivers will be available to take the participants to and from school. Child care will be provided while they attend classes and work on campus.
Although counselors will be available, the 30 students will be expected to support each other in what Chavez called "peer mentoring." Participants who have cars will be expected to carpool with those who don't.
"We're trying to give students a sense of responsibility and a sense of the quality of life they are going to lead," Chavez said.
Mariscal, who has been collecting welfare since separating from her husband three years ago, has hope for the first time.
"I'm starting from the bottom," said Mariscal, who will also obtain her high school diploma through the program. She has plans to someday be a nurse. "I want to better myself so bad. This is a beginning."