When Leia McCall stood at the podium during the Bridges Out of Poverty graduation ceremony, she had a poignant story to tell about how the St. Vincent de Paul program changed her life.

She said she was forced to flee from an abusive marriage with her three daughters and only the clothes on her back.

“I had no money. No home. No job. No hope.”

At first she slept in a small backyard tent then lived in a cramped single-wide trailer with her parents.

“I had to give up custody of my daughters until we had a place to live,” she said.

Smart and determined, she found a job as a pool technician. But the best thing that happened to her, she said, was when she walked into St. Vincent Paul office in Punta Gorda and asked what she could do to help herself.

“They suggested I sign up for the Bridges Out of Poverty program. I didn’t know what it was but I was willing to do everything and anything to build a better life for my children,” she said.

During the 16-week program, she was paired with mentor Rita Sheridan who helped her chart a course of action.

Monumental changes started to happen.

St. Vincent de Paul volunteers worked with the New Paradigm Foundation, coming up with a house in Punta Gorda for Leia.

“It enabled me to get my daughters back. And then St. Vincent’s furnished the house,”

She is now following Rita’s suggestion to pursue a nursing degree.

“The Bridges program turned my life around,” she said. “It has meant more than I can ever say.”

One by one, the nine Bridges graduates told of improvements the program made in their lives.

“It helped me look at life with a different perspective,” said Sharon Burnham.

SVDP awarded her a scholarship to the CNN Suncoast Technical Institute where she is studying to become a certified nursing assistant.

Martin Richard said he was homeless with no idea how to improve his life until he signed up for the Bridges program.

“At first I came only because I could get a good meal one day a week. But I found people who truly cared about me without judging. “The program gave me focus and taught me how to reach my goals. I learned I can do it,” he said.

How does that transition take place? What happens in the program that changes lives around?

According to the graduates, for the first time they were given hope and were surrounding by people who cared about them. They learned to investigate reasons for their poverty and make changes to reach their goals.

Learning how to budget made a major difference, they said.

Most of all, they said it was having a mentor by their side each week that gave them encouragement and direction.

“This was the first time the volunteer mentors came to every class. We found it made a big difference in the confidence level and in the success of the program,” said Karen Velbeck, director of sustainable change at SVDP.

“It’s hard to find the trust to talk to someone. It’s a great feeling to have a mentor to talk to and to help me stay focused,” said Joey Sund.

They say it takes a village to sustain a program. There is a village of caring people behind the Bridges program.

The hard work of the director and teachers Phyllis Sandals and Monica DiMattia is augmented by dozens of others, including mentors that will continue working with the graduates.

“Working with this class has been a rewarding experience because each one is determined to make a life change,” said Monica.

“They are crossing the bridge onto a better life.”

Pattie Mihalik is a regular columnist for the SUN. Contact her at newsgirl@comcast.net.

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