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Leap To Success
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Author Brian Prioleau on a California program that mines self-confidence among women who have experienced homelessness. Through strategies centered on empowerment and skill development, Leap to Success discovered what confidence could result in for this vulnerable community.
Leap to Success

Dana Bristol-Smith has done the corporate route. She was a professional development consultant for executives, helping them develop their speaking skills. She saw repeatedly how women who took her training would develop self-confidence and often get promoted because they learned how to make themselves heard, which built their confidence and self-esteem. “I asked myself, ‘Who are the women in the community who could use these skills the most?’ The answer was domestic violence victims and homeless women. They have lost their confidence, and, in some cases, almost lost their lives. I found out 75 percent of women in homeless shelters have a background of domestic violence. That is a huge number—in some cases, domestic violence was a direct cause, sometimes not.”

So in 2008, Bristol-Smith put together a team and started Leap to Success. They tested the central concept: "can we build confidence through teaching public speaking and other skills?" In 2008, they trained six women; in 2013 the number was up to 100 women. She said, “Many of these women went from shelter to shelter. The emphasis was just their immediate needs, not teaching them how to stand on their own two feet. They needed intermediate and advanced training to have a long-term impact upon their ability to move forward. We decided to work with them and encourage them.”

Leap to Success has two programs that include:
  • The Empowerment Program is a six-week program that takes women from the homeless shelter and trains them in interpersonal communication skills and public speaking with the goal of making a brief presentation at their graduation in front of people who care about them. Bristol-Smith said, “This helps them re-enter the workforce and helps them with their job search.” This program received funding from Avon.
  • The Leadership Program is a yearlong program. Clients have ten weeks of classroom work where they learn about personal development, how to improve their interpersonal communications skills, and how to speak up for themselves. Leadership Program clients are also assigned a personal success coach. Then they meet once a month for nine months.
Participants in both programs learn how to make eye contact, how to introduce themselves, and how to develop a conversation with people they meet, among many other skills. The completion rate for the Empowerment Program is 75 percent and the Leadership Program is 95 percent.

Leap to Success relies upon graduates and community outreach events to perpetuate the success of new participants. All graduates have a standing monthly invitation to come back and work with new clients. Graduates also register, greet, and speak to clients in the program setting. “New students see them being leaders,” Bristol-Smith said.

She told the story of Connie, who lived on the streets of San Diego for two years, but had a paralegal certificate. When she gave birth, she went from the hospital directly to the homeless shelter. Leap to Success gave her an assignment: introduce herself to three new people. Connie called the head of the paralegal association and set up a brief meeting just to get feedback on how to approach a job search, given her situation. The woman said Connie seemed warm and professional, and later she told Connie of a receptionist position at a law firm. Two years later, Connie is a legal secretary at the same firm, she has her own apartment, and her daughter has a room of her own.

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