New Opportunity School graduates latest group of local women

A few years ago, Tami Gentry was only a seed. 

But after graduating from the New Opportunity School for Women, she blossomed, and last week, she watched more women like her blossom, too. 

The latest batch of Winchester participants in the New Opportunity School for Women graduated last week. Five women went through the program, all agreeing during the ceremony at Loma’s it changed them for the better. 

During the opening speech, Gentry said the Clark County women truly went from seeds to beautiful blooms: Melissa Finney is the rose; Charity Harrison is the daisy; Stella Chaney is the tiger lily; Ariel Milliner is the iris and Lisa Baker is the wysteria. 

“These ladies are the seeds to our future,” Gentry said in her speech. “I believe it is up to us to keep and nurture them. Keep them in our thoughts and prayers; nurture them when they need us. …I was once one of those seeds. I was sitting right where you’re at right now… Help us keep these gardens growing. Help keep this garden beautiful.”

The New Opportunity School for Women works to improve the financial, educational and personal circumstances of low-income women. 

Robbie Pentecost, executive director of the New Opportunity School for Women, said for more than 30 years, the New Opportunity School for Women has offered a residential program in Berea. The residential program lasts for two weeks during which participants take classes on topics such as self-esteem, health, expressive arts, Appalachian literature and more. 

Pentecost said she realized not every woman that could benefit from its programming can afford to leave home and work for two weeks. So, about three years ago, the school decided to take its program on the road, condensing the program to three days and expanding its impact. 

“It’s important to help the people become integrated into their own community,” Pentecost said. 

Mary Lewis, program manager with the New Opportunity School for Women, said she saw this year’s group of participants come in unsure of themselves, but on the day of their graduation last Wednesday, the group had completely turned-around, and felt more sure of themselves than they had ever felt before.

“They have all of these plans now,” Lewis said. “They’re excited…” 

“They’re ready to make change,” Pentecost finished. “And that’s just for three days. So that’s amazing.”

The program is free. Gentry said the school provides meals and supplies, thanks to the generosity of community donors such as Walmart, Vanessa Ziembroski, Court Street Gifts and more. 

“The rest of the community needs to know this community is pulling together,” Gentry said.

The school also works with participants to cover some of the costs involved with transportation and childcare. 

Participants come to the school in a variety of ways. Some participants come to the school as referrals because of domestic violence situations, addiction, criminal offenses, mental health struggles and more. Other participants hear about the program in another way, either online or word-of-mouth, wanting to better themselves.

During the three-day program, participants get a condensed version of the school’s curriculum on self-esteem, helping to set healthy boundaries and encourage the first steps to a healthy personal outlook. 

Stella Chaney, a graduate of Winchester’s 2019 program, said when she first came to the program, she was nervous. She didn’t want to open up. She wasn’t confident in herself. But over the course of the three days, her life changed.

“I would always say, ‘I’m ugly,’ or ‘I’m not good enough,’” Chaney said. “But coming in here and finishing it, I’m more like, ‘OK, well it’s not what everybody thinks. It’s about how I feel. I should be more concerned about myself.’ It’s just a life-changing experience.”

Chaney said she heard about the program through court. And she’s glad she did. 

“For the first time, I felt like I wasn’t judged,” Chaney said. 

Pentecost said she wants participants to walk away feeling like they have a foundation for their next steps in life. Along with the school’s self-esteem class, participants learn and discuss a holistic health module that looks at health from the inside out.

Staff and community partners also work to mentor participants through the next steps — whether that’s attending the residential program or tackling their goals head-on. 

Pentecost said she’s seen first-hand the impact of the program. One of the school’s graduates who now works with the program went on to pursue a master’s in psychology. And four of her five children have PhDs. 

“It’s a generational impact,” Pentecost said. “It really helps to move people out of poverty.”

Pentecost also told of another story. One woman enrolled in the program in Mount Sterling had previously attempted suicide. She came into the program with her head down, but left with her head held high. 

Pentecost said the school will return to Winchester next year, ready to change the lives of more women in Clark County.

Lisa Baker said it certainly changed her life, thanking Gentry, Lewis, Pentecost and the remaining volunteers and participants in the program.

“I spent 36 or 38 years of my life being told how useless and worthless I was,” Baker said, tearing up. “… This is the first time in my life anyone actually made me feel like I was worth something… This week has been hard for me because it touches on a lot of pain that I locked away for years… a lot of hurt… and it just felt really good to be able to speak about them without being judged.

“… Things like this make me feel like I can achieve something … It just means a lot. It really does”