Blanche Lee of Capitol Heights had a rude shock early last spring when a counselor told her she would no longer receive Social Security payments after her youngest son reached the age of 18 in a few months.
"At first I thought he meant that there would be no more money for my son," said Lee, 53, who had raised a family of four on Social Security payments and a widow's pension from the Veterans Administration since her husbands death in 1964.
"I didn't know that they (the Social Security Administration) would cut off everything -- that I didn't count unless I was a wife or a mother."
Lee sank into a deep depression for months -- panic stricken, not knowing where her life would lead. For 25 years, she had lived the reasonably secure life of a homemaker -- rearing children, cooking, cleaning house, shopping.
Now she faced the prospect of being forced back into the business world to make a living. Her widow's pension, $54 per month, was hardly enough to pay the utility bills. And while her sons -- ages 30, 21, and 18 -- could help, she realized she would have to find a job.
"I was so tired and depressed," says Lee. "It took me all day to clean up the bedroom. When I talked to friends, everything I told them was negative: The kids were getting on my nerves and my love life was lousy. I told them I didn't think I could get a job because I didn't have any skills."
Then she heard about New Alternatives, a federal program run by the county to prepare displaced homemakers to re-enter the working world. Displaced homemakers are defined as women 35 or older who have lost their major source of income through divorce, separation or the death of a spouse.
New Alternatives offered such women a six-week workshop on how to set career goals, manage money and finances, and land a job.
"It was almost like an alcoholic going to Alcoholics Anonymous," says Lee. "I was depressed and tired, and desperate. I thought they could help me out."
She did so well in the program counselors at New Alternatives had offered her an internship. She worked with New Alternatives for several months, then held several temporary jobs.
Two months ago, Lee got a job as an intern-receptionist for the Prince George's County Department of Personnel CETA office in Capitol Heights.
"I guess the people around here, think I'm crazy -- coming in here happy all the time," said Lee, referring to her office work.
"I get excited doing the most mundane things -- answering the phone, carrying papers down the hallway to another office," she added. "The people in the office have been doing it for years, and I guess they think that it's boring. Having been a housewife for so many years, I actually find it pretty exciting."
New Alternatives began in October 1978 and has sponsored nearly 20 workshops since. The six-week sessions usually instruct between 15 and 20 women.
The project, along with five similar ones formed in Maryland since 1978, is modeled after a Baltimore city program that began four years ago. At that time, an International Women's Year study estimated that 268,000 Maryland women were displaced homemakers.
"A lot of homemakers have been conditioned to believe that homemaking is not an honorable occupation and that it teaches them no new skills," said Doris McGuffey, director of New Alternatives. "Our job is to help ladies find out what in their background can help them to find work, help them build up their confidence levels, and in the end assist them in finding a job."
McGuffey and her staff of five do this by conducting workshops in which counselors talk to women about their backgrounds and potential career options.
After each woman decides on a career goal, the staff teaches them how to go about getting a job, how to write a resume, and how to handle an interview. Women also get lessons in how to manage time and money.
"One of the biggest problems that we face is that a lot a women who come through here have no confidence in themselves," McGuffey said. "You can see it in their faces when they come in. They are depressed and afraid of the unknown and being lonely."
"They will come up to you with five different reasons for not doing a particular thing," she says. "When you help them find an achievable career goal, they will tell you: 'I can, I will, but I'm afraid to.'"
New Alternatives help women break the confidence barrier by having them participate in exercises and watch films showing women struggling and achieving their goals.
"I think that far and away the most valuable thing we do is to allow the ladies a chance to draw on each other's experiences, give support to one another," said McGuffey.
"Seeing the other women tell their stories had a real impact on me," said Lee."I used to sit at home and figure that my situation was unique, that there was nothing I could do to change it. Going to the workshops helped me to see that I was not alone and that maybe there was a way out."
According to McGuffey, most of the women enter the program for economic reasons. They need to find work and they don't know how to go about it. But in some cases, displaced homemakers come to New Alternatives to escape the home and loneliness.
When Louise Archer's husband died in 1976, she was left alone with her 16-year-old son and a comfortable home in Camp Springs. She received her husband's retirement benefits and Social Security payments to help support her son, but disliked being at home alone.
"I talked to my neighbors and I talked to family, but I could never come to a decision of what to do about my situation," said Archer, 49. "I was depressed and running around in circles. It was clear what I had to do: I had to get a job to make sure the mortgage on the house would be paid, and for the sake of my mental health."
"I found myself sitting in front of television set all day long -- something I had never done," she recalls.
Early last year, Archer decided to enter the New Alternatives program, hoping to get some ideas of what direction to take. She stayed through several of the workshops and soon was able to tease the program counselors about her being ready to run the workshop.
She completed the program last summer, worked briefly with a women's rights group and now works with the women's bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor.
"I feel like a new person," Archer says now. "I feel better about myself, I've lost weight, and I dress much better. If nothing else I've gotten away from the polyester slacks and the bouffant hairdos of the suburban housewife."
"While I don't want to be a receptionist for the rest of my life, I feel that I've made a lot of progress," she added.
Recently, several New Alternatives participants decided to form a mutual support group, "Late Bloomers Alumini." Through it, the women hope to maintain contact with each other and get together for social outings.
"Homemakers have been taken for granted for too long, but I think we have a lot to offer," said Lee. "We're older women, but we are also more mature workers. Employers ought to forget about age and hire them, because these women are something special. They are hard working, enthusiastic, and dependable. Now tell me, how can you beat that?"