By APRIL DIODATO
OBSERVER Lifestyles Editor
Cheryl Messina was not ready to support a family on her own.
OBSERVER Photo by Matt Panebianco
Cheryl Messina, left, poses with Melissa Coniglio-Fote of the Everywoman Opportunity Center.
Her marriage of more than 20 years had come to an abrupt end. A mother of four children - one an adult, with three still under her care - she was suddenly left to provide for them. Everything came crashing down all at once: she was getting divorced, lost her job and temporarily lost custody of her two teenagers. With nothing more than a basket full of her clothes, Messina was homeless for six to eight weeks and moved in with her grandmother, who was dying and on Hospice.
"We didn't see that coming, either one of us," Messina, a Forestville resident, said of her divorce. "I had relied on another person for so long that confidence in my own abilities was a foreign concept to me. I felt utterly destroyed."
Her ex-husband had handled so many of the daily expenses and tasks, and now she found herself back to square one. Messina regarded the computer as a source of frustration that she tended to avoid and didn't know how to use e-mail; those things had been taken care of for her. After relocating to Western New York from New Jersey about a decade ago, this was unfamiliar territory; she felt far from home, completely unprepared and overwhelmed.
"I was a mom," she said. "I cooked, I shopped, I took care of babies. I knew how to take care of people."
Messina had to fight her way back - but she needed help. She came to the Everywoman Opportunity Center in Dunkirk with her life in shambles and with their assistance, she was able to conquer her adversity. Messina credits Everywoman and her strong faith for fostering what she calls her "rise from the ashes."
"She really needed a lot of support," said Melissa Coniglio-Fote, career counselor at Everywoman Opportunity Center. "She has come such a long way."
Everywoman Opportunity Center, Inc., was established to help women in transition like Messina achieve personal and economic self-sufficiency The not-for-profit agency was established in 1977 and now has five multipurpose centers in Western New York that provide services to women seeking the means with which to become independent.
Messina had worked in a hospital for a few years as an aide and for five years as a substitute teacher, both work that she had been passionate about. Everywoman Opportunity Center helped her put the skills that she had together and put her on track to work toward becoming a registered nurse. They worked with Messina on her FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), applying to Jamestown Community College, job searching, resume and cover letter writing.
"The jobs that I was equipped for were less than $10 an hour," she said.
After regaining custody of her children, $10 an hour wasn't enough for her three children.
"I know people do it, I know that it's not impossible but you need so much help," Messina said. "You're not qualified to get food stamps."
Her house had gone into foreclosure as well, making a loan unattainable. She was getting by with the help of gift cards from her fellow parishioners at the Christian Worship Center on Eagle Street in Dunkirk
"That's what divorce does it tears apart your finances," she said.
Messina's rebuilding has been more than two years in the making. With the help of school loans, she has been going to JCC and working per diem. On May 21 ("God-willing," she said breathlessly) she will graduate with her associate's degree in applied sciences and become eligible to sit for the R.N. boards. She hopes to continue on and earn her bachelor's degree, with her ultimate goal of becoming a nurse practitioner.
"Missy was a great advocate," Messina said of Coniglio-Fote. "(She) listened to my needs, helped me form goals through the tears and encouraged me unconditionally. It's been a daily struggle, so praise God I'm taking everything one step at a time."
For more than 20 years, Everywoman has given an award in recognition of the outstanding actions of women who are path finders, risk takers and role models for all women in their communities. Because of her incredible progress and her resolve, Messina has been selected as the recipient of the Elizabeth B. Hopkins Alumna Award celebrates the achievements of an Everywoman program alumna who exemplifies personal achievement - an achievement aided by Everywoman's program resources. Messina was presented the honor at the 27th Annual Awards Dinner honoring exceptional Western New Yorkers, held May 5 at Salvatore's Italian Gardens in Depew.
No one agrees more with Messina's status as a role model than her daughter, Ariel, 20, who listened proudly as her mother told her story. They share the same dark hair, directness and confident gaze.
"I am very proud of my mom," Ariel said. "Not only is she doing what everyone said she couldn't do my grandmother literally told her, 'You can't do this, just quit and be a mom, be a housewife but she's getting honors. She's doing well, she's one of the best in her class. Nurses will tell you, she doesn't just have the smarts but she has the skills."
Messina's bright blue eyes filled with tears as she heard her daughter's praise.
"She has that heart and I'm so proud that she didn't just listen to what everyone told her," Ariel continued. "And she's getting awards because she is someone to look up to."
They smiled at each other as Messina collected herself.
"That's awesome, Ar, thanks," she said softly.
Mother and daughter became classmates at JCC for Messina's first semester - which was quite and experience for the pair.
"We are going to write a book, it just needs to be done," Ariel said.
"Yes, we've already decided," Messina agreed. "It's going to be called, 'Coffee, Thongs and Bacon,'" the two ladies announced the title in unison and dissolved in laughter together.
There is nothing Messina finds to be more rewarding than serving as a mentor to her daughters and granddaughter, born in December.
"I'll never, ever regret taking the time to raise a family first and having that experience," Messina said. "And some women choose career first - either way, it's a beautiful thing, it's your choice. That's what I want to show them. Nothing can stop you from achieving your dream."
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According to Melissa Coniglio-Fote, career counselor at Everywoman Opportunity Center in Dunkirk, severe cuts were made to the center's funding for the upcoming year and they are struggling to stay open in order to help other local woman like Messina.
"Our agency is working hard to get funding between now and October to help keep our center open," Coniglio-Fote said. "Any assistance from community agencies is greatly appreciated ... Many women rely on our services to help with job searching and career readiness. We see roughly 200 women yearly. Many would lose hope if our services were not able to be provided in this area."
Everywoman Opportunity Center, Inc., is located at 324 Central Ave., Dunkirk. For more information, call 366-7020.