Displaced homemaker program helps women start anew

First comes love; then comes marriage. But when nearly half of all marriages end in divorce and some in death, what comes next for women who have spent years of their life as homemakers?

“Panic,” says Nancy Oettel, program assistant for and graduate of Turning Point, a displaced homemaker program at Whatcom Community College.

It’s a sensation Oettel recalls vividly and one of the driving forces that brought her to Turning Point in January 2004.

“I went out shopping one day, and when I came home I found my husband dead of natural causes,” recalls Oettel, now 62. “Thirty-four days after he died, I was sitting in class. I used the program for a self-discovery foundation.”

She is not alone in the struggle to find a place outside of the home. Washington state is home to more than 200,000 displaced homemakers, according to a 2003 report by Women Work! The National Network for Women’s Employment, the most recent study available.

To provide more independence and economic security to those women, the Washington State Legislature created the Displaced Homemaker Program in 1979, offering training opportunities, counseling and other services. Though the community college has had a displaced homemaker program for nearly 20 years, Turning Point became its own program in 1999.

“We’ve helped hundreds of women, and actually some men and indirectly their families, over that period of time,” says program coordinator Robin Bailey.


Despite the growing presence of women in the workforce, many women find themselves lost after years of taking care of the household. They just aren’t sure how to bridge the gap between their work at home and what they can do for a career.

“Our curriculum is entirely centered around the idea of helping a woman … become self-sufficient,” Bailey says. “Helping them figure out where their strengths are and overcoming what they think are barriers is what we do.”The program includes 50 hours of classroom time: three and a half hours a day, five days a week, for three weeks. In addition to building self esteem and determining skills, the students study labor trends, job trends and community resources. They also talk about what a good resume looks like and they practice interview skills.

“When you’re going through class and you get the whole picture, it’s really eye-opening,” says Oettel.Though the program usually consists of women ages 35 to 60 who have been divorced or widowed, men are welcome, and the program includes a variety of people.

“This is not about low-income or uneducated,” Bailey says. “Because we have people with GEDs to master’s degrees. We even had one Ph.D.”

The program also includes support activities outside of the classroom. Students can come together to share their experiences and advice, and generally bond and provide support for one another.

“It’s amazing. Most people who take the class come away feeling pretty empowered,” Bailey says. “They get their lives back.”


Last November, after about three years away from the program, Oettel was invited by a classmate to attend one of the program’s support activities. While at the function she volunteered to help out in the office and put to use the organization skills she identified as one of her strengths while in the program. She now plays an indispensable role as program assistant.

Though her four children are adults, she does have six granddaughters, and setting a good example for them was her motivation to take on the job.

“It’s the very first time I’ve ever held a job outside the home,” says Oettel.

“And she’s good at it,” Bailey adds for good measure.


For Lauree Fletcher, raising six kids after her divorce felt like a job in and of itself.

After talking with Bailey throughout that summer, Fletcher joined Turning Point in 2002 and started taking classes at Whatcom at the same time.

“The idea of going to college at an older age — it was a little unnerving,” says Fletcher, 50, a Lynden resident. “No one was more surprised than I was that I finished my two years with a 4.0 (grade point average).”From Whatcom, Fletcher went to Western Washington University, where she graduated from Fairhaven College in June. She is now the conference coordinator for an upcoming academic symposium and is on Turning Point’s advisory board. She credits the program for motivating her to start school when she did.

“It really is a powerful program,” Fletcher says. “It’s a powerful means to be able to move forward in one’s life.”

While in the class, Fletcher enjoyed the hands-on projects that allowed her to work out what was going on in her head and in her life. Just knowing that she was in a place where she could give women advice was an invaluable realization.

“I’ve been on my own for 10 years now, and in that 10 years, we still have a house and we’ve never gone without a meal. And those are big things even though they’re little things,” Fletcher says. “Helping people see what they have accomplished and then take that and turn it into further success, to me, is really important.”Though there usually isn’t a dollar amount placed on the work women do in the home and for their families, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value, and Fletcher says she really wishes more people would realize that.

“If you put a woman who is the head of a household on a new path to be able to sustain her family, you’ve touched more than one life.”