The question that brought tears to Adia's eyes was a simple one: Tell us about yourself.
"I started crying," Adia said. "The first thing I thought was, 'I'm a mom.' "
In a job interview, that suddenly didn't seem like enough.
It was workforce development week at Bright Beginnings, a charity that has a two-generation approach to combating homelessness in the District. Bright Beginnings operates a preschool for children from homeless families, preparing them to successfully enter kindergarten. It also offers programs for parents, to help them improve their lives by completing an education or getting a job.
Scheduled for the last day of workforce development week was a bit of fun: a fashion show to demonstrate proper workplace attire, held in a large, light-filled room of the Perry School building at First and M streets NW. Before then, parents such as Adia — a 30-year-old mother of two — could take sessions on topics like setting goals, writing résumés and nailing the job interview.
Clients had kicked off the week with what Jeanay Bullock, Bright Beginnings' workforce development manager, called a "Sip & Paste": sitting and creating vision boards exploring their hopes when it came to work.
From there, things got more specific. Bullock explained that job-seekers should scrutinize their social media feeds, since employers would be looking for any questionable posts. "You need to clear that up," she said.
Also important: having someone else proofread your résumé. There was agreement all around.
"I can edit her résumé," said one Bright Beginnings client, nodding to a woman seated nearby. "When it comes to mine, I can't."
But what was really eye-opening — and stressful — were the mock job interviews. A one-on-one job interview was tough enough, the Bright Beginnings clients agreed, but a panel job interview — being grilled by three or four people — was really anxiety-producing.
"You come in with no confidence," one client lamented.
One suggestion: Make eye contact with the interviewers. Don't look up at the ceiling. That makes it look as if you're timid or scared.
"That's the last thing you want to exude," said Tamara Perez, family and community engagement manager at Bright Beginnings.
What was the balance, some clients wondered, between saying too little in a job interview and saying too much?
"When I'm having anxiety, I may overtalk," one mom said.
Adia had lost it when it had been her turn in the mock panel interview.
"Who am I?" she said to herself. She was a mother to a 7-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy, but she didn't think that's what they wanted to hear. They meant, "Tell us about your skills, your work history, your education. . . . "
"I burst out crying," Adia said. She had completed a course in cosmetology but had yet to pass her licensing exam.
"I don't want you to think you're just a mom," said Shaquita Tillman, the disabilities and mental health manager at Bright Beginnings. She pointed out that any parent who successfully gets two or three kids out the door for school and makes sure they're fed and clothed already has awesome time-management skills.
After her mock interview meltdown, Adia had sat back down and calmed herself as other women took their turns.
She told herself: My skills are just as important as the people who went before and after me.
Then she did it again.
"They liked the second one better," Adia said. "They see more in me than I saw in myself. That's something I need to work on."
She vowed to get her cosmetology license.
When it was finally time for the fashion show, volunteers demonstrated some do's and don'ts. Sweatpants and slippers? Okay for the grocery store. Not for a job.
One woman showed off business casual as Bullock narrated: "She's wearing boots, but they're not too high. Her clothes are not too tight. The slacks do give her a professional feel."
Bullock herself illustrated the epitome of a sedate work uniform: pleated skirt, heels and a blouse buttoned to the neck.
As she strutted on the imaginary runway, the crowd egged her on. "You have to work it!" someone shouted, demanding that Bullock sashay.
"Look at you!"
Adia's son is a student at Bright Beginnings preschool. Her daughter is a graduate, now getting straight A's in first grade.
"People need to understand that this place is a blessing," Adia said. "It helps not just the kids but the parents themselves."
To give by mail, make a check payable to "Bright Beginnings" and send it to: Bright Beginnings, Attn: Helping Hand, 128 M St. NW, Suite 150, Washington, D.C. 20001.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.