Wearing caps and gowns, a group of area residents gathered Thursday evening at the Brazos Valley Council of Governments headquarters in Bryan and celebrated a hard-earned milestone.

Since 1992, BVCOG has been offering local residents opportunities with its GED program and Family Self-Sufficiency, or FSS, program. Thursday’s small graduation ceremony gave participants a chance to acknowledge and celebrate their achievements in both programs.

Family and friends gathered as many of the 31 participants were on hand to be recognized with a certificate. Ten had formally completed GED courses, while 21 had come to the conclusion of a five-year stint of success with FSS tutelage and financial guidance. Several of the FSS graduates also were presented with checks courtesy of the BVCOG’s escrow savings plan.

“Once someone enrolls into FSS, they can earn an escrow account [with BVCOG],” explained FSS coordinator Belinda Nichols. “Once that person starts working and they have an increase in earning, money goes into that account each month from our agency. This is during that five-year period.”

FSS participants all started their journey surviving on financial assistance from a housing choice voucher program, and through BVCOG they committed to become fully independent within five years as they worked and earned escrow funds from BVCOG. Additionally, FSS guided participants in financial planning and connected them to local resources through BVCOG offices and outside organizations and nonprofits. BVCOG serves more than 300 men and women in these ways through FSS each year.

“[Participants] sign a five-year contract and set goals such as looking for employment and to be welfare free,” said BVCOG housing manager Harold Womble. “[They also set] individual goals for themselves, maybe to get their GED or learn a trade.”

Debra Greenleaf, a caregiver for the elderly employed with Visiting Angels in Bryan, was happy to receive her certificate of completion in the FSS program Thursday night. She started the program when she lived in Franklin. She did not have a car at the time and relied on rides from a friend as well as public transportation to make her trips to work in Brazos County. Her life took a new turn when she spotted a flyer for the FSS program at the BVCOG headquarters in 2014.

“My goals were to get a car and bring my credit score up, and to move to Bryan,” she said.

Since applying to FSS, Greenleaf has purchased a car, moved to Bryan and improved her credit score. She also recently took on a second job working for CHI St. Joseph and aspires to own her own home in Bryan once she starts saving that extra income.

Greenleaf likened her struggles and triumphs to those described by the event’s keynote speaker, Robyn Taylor, an FSS alumna. Taylor, a native of College Station, spoke about her struggles growing up in a low income household as the daughter of a single mother. She said she didn’t take much issue with needing government assistance as a child but realized as an adult she wanted better for her own daughter.

Before applying to FSS, Taylor said she struggled even with this outside help.

“You really have to recover from poverty, and it’s a long process,” she said. “You’re continually learning and learning, and tweaking and moving things around. It’s like recovering from an illness ... you go through pain, healing and therapy, and then you’re back on your feet.”

Though she has made some mistakes since graduating FSS, none have been insurmountable, Taylor said. She has been financially independent for almost 10 years and has never been evicted. She works as the assistant director of a local child care center, is completing a bachelor’s degree and dreams of attending the Bush School of Government and Public Service to obtain a master’s degree.

“We must purposely insert ourselves into situations that grow us,” Taylor stated. “Above everything, we must be proud in each and every step we take to recover. Some people have a faster process than others, but do not be discouraged, because that is an individualized process. It takes as long as it takes. The reward for perseverance is a promise; a promise that you will reach your goals if you don’t give up.”

For information on FSS and other BVCOG programs contact Harold Womble by calling 979-595-2801 ext. 2081, or by emailing harold.womble@bvcog.org.

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