Angela Davis-Washington, 38, recently graduated from Montgomery County’s federally mandated Family Self-Sufficiency program. ”I feel great right now,” she said at the program’s graduation. Next fall, she will pursue a nursing degree. (Brian Lewis/The Gazette)

Five years ago, Angela Davis-Washington was unemployed, on welfare and had just given birth to her fifth child.

Life is a lot different these days. The Germantown resident celebrated her completion of the Family Self-Sufficiency program last week, along with 30 other Montgomery County residents.

She and many of her fellow graduates spent five years in the program, a Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission mandate by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help individuals receiving housing assistance achieve financial independence. In Montgomery County, the program has 441 participants at any one time. It began in 1993, and since that year, 777 of the 1,667 enrollees have completed it, including 131 graduates who have bought homes, according to FSS Program Coordinator Nancy Scull.

Of those graduates, 503 no longer receive housing assistance, HOC spokeswoman Susan Yancy said.

According to an HOC yearly report, approximately one-third of FSS graduates began the program unemployed or on welfare, and 15 percent hadn’t finished high school. Eventually, 90% percent took college and/or job training, and 76 percent completed their GED, job skills training, certification or a college degree in the program.

At the time of graduation, graduates of the Family Self-Sufficiency program earned an average of $29,886 annually or $14.36 per hour. They had increased earnings by an average of $17,231, and received an average of more than $10,000 in FSS escrow savings upon graduation — a program designed to help encourage participants to save, according to the HOC report.

The graduates on Oct. 10 had more than doubled their earnings on average, from $14,585 to $34,495. Twenty-five are single parents.

Most of the other graduates were living in public housing or, like Davis-Washington, receiving housing assistance five years ago.

David-Washington was one of a third of the graduates who was out of work. She had worked as a certified nursing assistant, then a secretary at a legal firm. FSS helped her regain her certified nursing assistant’s license, which had expired while she was working at the law firm.

“I feel great right now,” she said at the graduation, beaming. It had been a long journey.

After regaining her CNA license, Davis-Washington started at health-care and insurance provider Kaiser Permanente at $14 an hour. It was stressful — going to school, working and raising her children.

“It was so hard,” she said. “I wish someone had told me not to have kids [so early] because it was so hard to manage a family, go to school and work as a single mom.”

Davis-Washington has been on her own — or mostly on her own — for a long time. Growing up, she spent around four years living in foster care. She has little memory of this time, except “a judge with white hair in the courtroom.”

“I was young. I had to be at least four. I remember not leaving with my parents,” she said.

She has a warm smile and looks younger than her 38 years, seemingly untouched by the demands of raising her five children.

She grew up in Rockville and around the Washington area, first in foster care, then bouncing between her mother, who struggled with drugs, and her father, who battled alcohol. He has stepped up in recent years, she said, helping her with groceries when cash was tight and sometimes watching her kids when she had to go to work or class.

She had her youngest child two weeks before she entered the program. Davis-Washington is the mother of five daughters, ages 5 to 19. The oldest, Shyniqua Mooney, is studying nursing at Penn State University.

“I wasn’t expecting to see the last five years go by like that. It was horrible — we went through a lot. Seeing your mother, not knowing how to help her, it was rough,” Mooney said.

Money was so tight during her first year in the program that she and her children didn’t celebrate Christmas.

Davis-Washington would wake at 5 a.m. to get her youngest child ready for day care, then spend 2 1 / 2 hours commuting to work by train and bus from Germantown to Largo.

At one point, she had to drop out of school because of the demands of running her family and her work. Without a car, “I just couldn’t get to a six o’clock class,” she said.

Eventually, her pay climbed to $45,000 a year, and she got a car, cutting her commute to only 45 minutes. And once she gained seniority at Kaiser (where she still works), she could work earlier hours and take night classes to complete the prerequisites necessary to study nursing.

Two friends there provided support when she was feeling down.

“My co-workers have been a big help,” Davis-Washington said. “They say, ‘You’re a single mom, you’re doing a good job.’ They keep me focused, they keep me motivated.”

She recently learned both Frederick Community College and Howard University had accepted her into their nursing programs. After picking which one to attend, she will start next fall after she completes her microbiology requirement.

“Angela was a good client,” said her caseworker, Melissa Wesley. “She had some setbacks but pursued her goals.”

Davis-Washington still receives some housing assistance. When she was unemployed, her rent was $279, she said. Now, she pays $974.

“When you’re on welfare, you’re not living high on the hog, you’re scraping by,” said Estelle Richman, a special adviser to Shaun Donovan, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who spoke at the FSS graduation. The program graduates “want to get off welfare.”

“They hope to get a job that pays [for] health insurance, child care and so they do not need food stamps. And most of these ladies also want to own their own home.”

Roberto Piñero, commission chairman of the Housing Opportunities Commission, said, “Almost half [of the graduates] began without employment. Now all have employment and doubled their income — it’s not an easy time to be doing this.”

Davis-Washington said completing the program has helped her reawaken an ages-old dream.

“I’ve always wanted to be a nurse, ever since I was a little girl,” she said, “but I’ve had so many interruptions. Now I’m halfway there.”

Staff writer Kathleen J. Bryan contributed to this report.