‘Dream Factory’ Offers Skills, Jobs, Hugs

When Carmella Marrone placed a small ad in a local Queens newspaper to announce a new job-training program for women at Queens College, she had seven seats to fill.

What happened took her by surprise.

A heartening hug can bolster career advice from Women and Work founder Carmella Marrone.

On the day to interview candidates “we got to the center and 250 women were on the doorstep,” says Marrone, 63, executive director of Women and Work, a free job and life-skills learning program she launched in 1999 for low-income women. “The message it sent to me was how serious the situation was.”

Over the years, W&W has grown from a six-week program focusing on computer skills to a 15-week program that graduates 120 women each year and provides courses in technology, writing and comprehension, math, humanities, ESL; training in workplace culture skills; internships; and job-placement assistance at various financial institutions and companies like Verizon Wireless and Canon. W&W, which receives funding from the Liz Claiborne and Helena Rubinstein foundations, as well as others, serves another 80-100 women through its post-programs and it recently piloted a part-time program that welcomes 50 women a year.

Within the first year, “we started getting responses from domestic violence shelters, from residential facilities,” says Marrone, who holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology and one in women’s studies, a master’s in applied social research from Queens College, and now is completing a Ph.D. in Sociology at the Graduate Center. “The word spread quickly that this was a program that was doing more than just teaching skills, but that it was investing in lives.”

In 2002, Marrone launched the post-graduation program so women who see advancement opportunities at work, but lack skills, can return to W&W to receive training. An important part of the program is that it allows the women to stay connected. There are 1,500 graduates — 73 percent are immigrants and 30 percent victims of domestic violence.

“Women have established a community here, a safe and secure environment,” says Marrone of the program, which requires women to have a high school or GED diploma. “Sometimes things aren’t going great out there and for them to know that they can pick up the phone and call us, is a wonderful thing.”

Gillian Nelson, a single mother of two girls and a graduate of the program, knows how crucial that is. A victim of domestic violence, she graduated from the program in 2004 and got a job selling ice-cream in the lobby at the Le Parker Meridien hotel. Nelson then learned of a vacant engineering mechanics position but she didn’t have the right skills. She called W&W, which sent her to a Non-Traditional Employment For Women organization, and the skills she learned there combined with the computer knowledge skills she acquired at W&W helped her land the job.

“I felt like I was stuck in mud and every step was a struggle,” says Nelson of her life before W&W. “Carmella’s program showed me that it can get better. Learning how to use the computer did a lot for me in terms of my self-esteem.”

W&W was born of Marrone’s personal struggle. She had enjoyed a successful corporate career in Atlanta, but after she was diagnosed with cancer in 1990, she lost her job, her house and divorced her husband. She had several surgeries and chemotherapy. Six months earlier, her grandmother had died of cancer and she didn’t want her mother and her daughter to have to live through another tragedy. She retreated to a cabin in the north Georgia wilderness for a year where she lived alone and recovered.

She moved in with her mother in Queens, enrolled at Queens College, began doing research on women in the workforce and the idea emerged. The goal of the program — which they call a “dream factory” — was “to empower women,” she says. “That was the dream, that was the vision and that’s what we’ve evolved into.”

Marrone has consistently received threatening phone calls or notes slipped under her office door from men who have abused the women in the program. In 2008, three masked men attacked her on a side street near the college with one shouting that if Marrone didn’t want him to beat his wife, he would beat her instead.

“Only cowards would behave in such a way,” she says. “Nobody on this earth is going to stop me from doing this work.”