Chrysalis helps women who’ve been knocked down stand tall with career skills and self-confidence

Salon Tru donated haircuts and job-interview makeovers to Women’s Empowerment Program participants, helping them show the world
their renewed self-confidence and readiness to work
Photos by Maria Martin

By Susan Hornik

With the nonstop movement of daily life, it can be easy for a woman to forget how much she has to be grateful for — like having a job, a place to live and reasons
to be optimistic about the future.

According to last year’s annual homeless census, there are 11,000 women living on the streets without shelter in Los Angeles County. Including those living in shelters or vehicles, women make up roughly a third of the county’s homeless population.

Mirroring those statistics, women account for about 30% of clients for Chrysalis, a nonprofit that provides self-sufficiency and job readiness training, transitional employment and job referrals to low-income and formerly homeless adults at offices in downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica. Last year, for example, more than 430 people who trained in Santa Monica secured employment, said Communications Director Mallory Powers Loring.

Chrysalis also offers women a safe space of their own through its recurring specialized Women’s Empowerment Program. The nine-week workshop not only imparts vital life skills for finding and keeping a job, but also fosters dialogue to rebuild self-esteem for those who’ve faced significant life challenges, which sometimes but not always includes homelessness. Topics include goal setting, time management, financial literacy, dealing with negative thinking, professionalism
in the workplace and mentorship discussions with past Chrysalis clients.

In late March, 36 women about to complete this year’s spring session gathered at Salon Tru in Santa Monica, which donated the time and talents of its stylists and aestheticians to provide free haircuts and job-interview makeovers.

These physical transformations reflected how participants’ lifted their spirits through sharing struggles, victories and personal growth, noted Chrysalis Vice President of Development Molly Moen.

“It’s the team of other women cheering them on, the restored self-confidence and the hope for the future that have a truly lasting impact on their success as they re-enter the workforce,” Moen said.


Stronger Every Day

Tashonna Thompson first came to Chrysalis two and a half years ago, after being homeless in the streets.

“I was hopping from shelter to shelter, having had abusive relationships and an abusive childhood. Chrysalis helped me, and now I live in a one-bedroom apartment,” she enthused. “It’s been amazing to be involved. They make you feel like family and take care of you. When you are down, they lift you up. … I am blessed.”

Working a variety of part times jobs facilitated through Chrysalis, she said the Salon Tru makeover made her feel like a celebrity.

“They keep encouraging me and let me know I get stronger and stronger every day. And I love being here for the makeover — it’s made me so happy,” she said.

Santa Monica Site Director Bianca Smith oversees the Women’s Empowerment Program. Her job may be to inspire others, but she herself finds inspiration through her clients and volunteers.

“It might seem small to us,” she says, “but to the people we serve, the work that we do is life-changing. One job can make the difference.”

Santa Monica resident Barb Neff, a freelance writer, has been volunteering with Chrysalis for the past 12 years and now co-chairs the Women’s Empowerment Program.

“I started as a mentor and went on to teach one of the core curriculum classes, Job Prep 1, which is about soft and hard skills, job searching online, resumes and networking,” she said. Despite her skills as a writer, “I can never come up with the right words to describe how moving this experience is — it’s so magical.”

Not that the work is easy.

“At the beginning, they don’t all get along … they have been through so much. Some don’t even talk,” Neff acknowledged. “The stories you hear during the course — it gives you perspective. But then at the end, they are all so very supportive of each other. It’s truly incredible and so moving.”


New Look, New Outlook

Unlike Neff, this is Salon Tru owner Michael Schoenfeld’s first time being involved with the program. He and his staff jumped at the chance after Chrysalis called asking for help.

“It’s such an honor. Salon director Lydia Ghassemi and I immediately started planning how we wanted the day to go, what we could do to help these women,” said Schoenfeld, who was visibly moved during the event.

“I saw them quietly waiting in line to come in. As the day progressed, there has been nothing but smiles and laughter. The energy totally changed within the first hour. It’s been incredible,” he said.

He recalled seeing one of his hairstylists with tears of joy on her face while working with a client.

“I had to turn away, as I was already in tears myself,” he acknowledged. “Later, I went up to her and said she looked beautiful. She couldn’t even say anything; she just cried.”

Schoenfeld, who also donated hair products from Salon Tru’s partners, was thrilled so many of his stylists wanted to participate. “It’s not easy getting hair stylists in on a Sunday night!” he quipped. “But they were all so enthusiastic to participate; everyone has been really excited to give back. It’s very moving to see people who truly appreciated what we are doing.”


The Sky is the Limit

To Chrysalis’ credit, many of the skills their clients learn have staying power. Toni White connected with the organization 11 years ago, when she was an unemployed single mother, and she still participates today.

“At that time, I was living in a shelter with my daughter,” White said. “I had left New Jersey with a criminal record and really wanted a fresh start. I was looking for resources that could help me in the Santa Monica area, and I found Chrysalis.”

As a woman in her 30s with a high school diploma and an out-of-state warrant, White thought her opportunities were limited.

“I didn’t want to raise my daughter on social services. So to find an amazing group of mentors and counselors who cared about my future was incredible. I went there because I was lost, and they truly helped me find my identity. They truly want us to succeed.”

As a result, White was able to secure her notary license, which allows her to be an independent contractor. Chrysalis found her a job that lasted 10 years, and when it ended, she headed back to the nonprofit to find another gig. She recently passed her California Realtor exam.

And those old criminal charges? After White returned to New Jersey to ask for forgiveness, a judge dismissed the charges against White based on her personal progress and a letter of support from her daughter, who served six years in the U.S. Navy as an electrician.

“I so appreciate them helping me two times. They opened the doors for me to have a community I will be connected to for my entire life. I will always be a part of the Chrysalis family, which is important to me,” White said.

“I tell them what I aspire to do and they help me to achieve that. They are interested in what I want for myself and my family. I am 49 years old now; even in this late sector of my life, I could go up or down. With Chrysalis, I see the sky is the limit.”