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Salem welfare mom betters life for self, children

| Sunday, June 17, 2012, 6:24 a.m.

Julia Pickett was divorced with four children and living in federally subsidized housing when her life changed in September 1995.

It was then the Salem woman enrolled her youngest daughter, Kayla, in Head Start and became a Head Start parent, then a volunteer parent mentor.

Pickett is now a full-time employee of Westmoreland Community Action's Next Step Supportive Housing Program after 11 years of part-time employment with Head Start. During that time, she earned associate's and bachelor of arts degrees.

She was selected as a 2008 Self-Sufficiency Award winner by the Community Action Association of Pennsylvania. The award recognizes 28 people who have worked with their local community action agency to overcome socio-econimic barriers and achieve success.

"I kind of felt like after a lot of hard work, it made it worthwhile," she said.

Pickett was a welfare recipient with a high school education when she decided she needed more for herself and her children.

"I knew I had four kids at home. I knew there was no way that I could do it with cash assistance," Pickett said. "I had started working for Head Start. ... I kind of got thrown into what was available. I took it from there."

In October 1996, Pickett began with Head Start as a substitute home visitor, a job that quickly became permanent. This led to 11 years as a part-time employee with Head Start until November of 2007, when she accepted a full-time job as an intake specialist/program worker. In June, she became a full-time case manager.

"I have 13 families I visit on a weekly basis," Pickett said. "We hook them up with services we provide. We provide transportation, work on budgeting. ... We just do whatever needs done to get them on their feet."

Pickett started her college education while working at Head Start. She received an associate's degree in human services at Westmoreland County Community College, graduating with high honors in May 2005. She moved on to Seton Hill University's Adult Degree Completion Program, taking Saturday and evening classes, while continuing to work and to raise her children.

"I feel I'm a pretty good student. In a way, it was easier for me than for some who struggle with the academics. But I was working full-time, trying to go to school full-time. I had kids," Pickett recalled. "It was definitely difficult, (but) I was bound and determined."

That determination led to Pickett's graduation from Seton Hill in December 2007 with highest honors.

Pickett also has found time to be involved in Westmoreland Community Action's Circles program and serves on the Guiding Coalition.

Circles, which was started locally in Jeannette, is an initiative aimed at ending poverty by changing the mindset and goals of a community. The Guiding Coalition sets the guidelines for Circles.

Tay Waltenbaugh, chief executive officer of Westmoreland Community Action, said Pickett is "very, very deserving" of the honor.

"She's gone through some trials and tribulations," Waltenbaugh said. "She has her family, she's gone through school, working her way up to becoming a full-time employee and what she's done through the Circles Initiative. She really does extend herself a great deal to help other people."

Bill Connolly, program coordinator for Next Step Supportive Housing Program, was Pickett's supervisor.

"It shows the ability of someone who really wants to try hard and achieve what they can while taking advantage of the assistance that is out there," Connolly said. "She chose not to remain on assistance, but to be self-sufficient. She does a great job, and we're lucky to have her."

Pickett feels what she's experienced can benefit the families she advises.

"If nothing else, I can tell the families I've been there and done that, and they don't look at me as someone who's telling them what to do," Pickett said. "It just makes me understand them a lot more. I know where they're coming from and how hard it is sometimes to get over some of the barriers."

Additional Information:

Self-sufficiency winners

Other self-sufficiency winners from the region and the community action agency they represent:

• Gabriella Locke, Uniontown, Fayette County Community Action Agency

• Natasha Barto, Indiana, Indiana County Community Action Program Inc.

• Wesley Barnes, Bellevue, Allegheny County Department of Human Services

• Jerome Bankston, Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Community Services Inc.

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