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Appalachian women build confidence and make life changes at Berea-based school

Participants at New Opportunity School for Women come together in a classroom where they feel safe and empowered to learn and grow.
Cheri Lawson
/
WEKU
Participants at New Opportunity School for Women come together in a classroom where they feel safe and empowered to learn and grow.

It’s an early Sunday morning in the lower level of the First Christian Church in Berea. In a classroom where the walls are decorated with motivational quotes, eight women gather around a table eager to learn how to design a personal quilt square. Bright, neon-colored name tags identify the women from various Appalachian counties. This is the first activity of the day at the New Opportunity School for Women where program coordinator Jennifer Walden explained to the group how this artwork is beneficial in building self-esteem.

“Appalachian culture is a vivid tapestry of creative traditions from folk arts and crafts to storytelling and music, and these are expressions of our identity that we like to weave into our programming here. No pressure. I want you to take your time and explore the emotions that you’re feeling today, harness the fear, and put it in a design,” explained Walden.

New Opportunity School for Women program coordinators Jennifer Walden and Crystal Burton welcome the women who have arrived for the two-week residential session.
Cheri Lawson
/
WEKU
New Opportunity School for Women program coordinators Jennifer Walden and Crystal Burton welcome the women who have arrived for the two-week residential session.

Walden said the New Opportunity School for Women is a support, education, and empowerment program. She said the non-profit is known for its two-week residential sessions where the women engage for up to 12 hours a day in the content on topics such as self-esteem, Appalachian culture, professional skills, and mindfulness.

“Whatever is a potential barrier to someone’s growth is included in this matrix of programming that we offer in our residential session,” said Walden.

Montgomery County resident Barb Harvey graduated from the program in 2018. She’s here to help the women with anything they need during their two-week stay.

“I was raised in Menifee County in a holler. We didn’t have neighbors so it was just us on that one road. We were really isolated, just wasn’t (sic) ever around people. The men had the say. We were just there to cook and clean and have babies,” said Harvey.

Harvey said going through the residential program made a big difference in her life.

“It’s changed my thinking process I guess because women can and do deserve to be just as good and do whatever men do. I’m pretty verbal now. I used to not be. I didn’t think we was allowed to talk. I go to city hall meetings now and I fight for the people in our community,” said Harvey.

NOSW graduate, house sister, and peer support specialist Barb Harvey chats with a participant during a short break.
Cheri Lawson
/
WEKU
NOSW graduate, house sister, and peer support specialist Barb Harvey chats with a participant during a short break.

The program started by Jane Stephenson a former Berea College first lady has been educating women for nearly 4 decades. There are also outreach programs for women who can’t make it to Berea for the two weeks. There’s a three-hour self-esteem workshop and a three-day non-residential program.

Katie Campbell said she was able to take part in the three-day program. The quilt square design she’s working on has a theme of courage. She said it took a lot of courage for her to get here.

“I have struggled with self-confidence and self-esteem. I can’t really cook things. I feel useless at home. I started journaling after the three-day non-residential program. I started looking at myself in a better point of view. I started talking to my therapist and now I’ve started cooking things here and there. So, I’m trying to become more independent,” said Campbell.

Class participant Katie Campbell brought her dog Chewie to the residential program for moral support.
Cheri Lawson
/
WEKU
Class participant Katie Campbell brought her dog Chewie to the residential program for moral support.

Crystal Burton showed the women the quilt square she designed when she came through the program in November of 2022.

” My quilt square is the woman kneeling by the water because that’s where I find my tranquility ,” explained Burton.

The 33-year-old now works for the school as a programming assistant. She said the support and classes changed her.

“There was a time that I was lost, That I was alone and I didn’t speak up or wouldn’t be heard. I was fine being whatever you needed me to be But, now I am confident. I take ownership in my voice and my space,” said Burton.

New Opportunity School for Women's Crystal Burton points to photos of friends and family members who've attended NOSW.
Cheri Lawson
/
WEKU
New Opportunity School for Women's Crystal Burton points to photos of friends and family members who've attended NOSW.

After the class designing quilt squares, Nurse Carla Baumann teaches health awareness. She said her job is to help the women identify goals and connect with their intuition.

”Over the years I’ve seen them come out of their shells, be excited about their future,” said Baumann.

It’s been a full day of classes and emotional sharing the women relax as social worker Betsy Kent leads a mindfulness exercise for stress relief called tapping.

As the day comes to a close at the New Opportunity School for Women everyone takes part in the mindfulness exercise for stress relief known as tapping.
Cheri Lawson
/
WEKU
As the day comes to a close at the New Opportunity School for Women everyone takes part in the mindfulness exercise for stress relief known as tapping.

Latona Gamble sits in on the session as a graduate and house sister. Gamble is here to support the participants. She said the work done at the New Opportunity School for Women has a ripple effect.

“Anything I learned here, it’s been passed on to my children and it will be passed on to the grandchildren. You are breaking generational curses coming here,” reported Gamble.

More than 1000 women have come through the New Opportunity School for Women. Executive Director Gina Riddell said she hopes to expand the program and help grow the services it provides.

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Cheri is a broadcast producer, anchor, reporter, announcer and talk show host with over 25 years of experience. For three years, she was the local host of Morning Edition on WMUB-FM at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Cheri produced and hosted local talk shows and news stories for the station for nine years. Prior to that, she produced and co-hosted a local talk show on WVXU, Cincinnati for nearly 15 years. Cheri has won numerous awards from the Public Radio News Directors Association, the Ohio and Kentucky Associated Press, and both the Cincinnati and Ohio chapters of the Society for Professional Journalists.
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