When Maria del Refugio Rosas lost her job after working 22 years for a fast-food chain, she was devastated — “sad, with nowhere to go.”Ventura Mendoza suffered from anxiety since her childhood and it was difficult for her to socialize.Maria Olivia Gonzalez was going through a similar situation a few years ago. Although she received treatment for postpartum depression, she preferred to remain isolated.Bena Pradhan’s and Annie Low’s stories are less dramatic, but as adult immigrants from Nepal and Taiwan, respectively, it was difficult for them to make new friends in a country with a different culture and language.But the lives of the five women took a positive turn when they met at the Meyler Adult and Family Learning Center, a program for adults built on the campus of Meyler Street Elementary School in Torrance. Guided by their children’s school officials they were driven to the center, co-founded by Annette Ciketic, a member of the Immaculate Heart Community. Ciketic had started a knitting and crochet project that later became fINdings Women’s Project, an integral component of fINdings Art Center, a nonprofit she established in 2007 to support family literacy programs that help parents engage in their children’s education. Through the project, partially funded by Kentucky-based National Center for Family Literacy and the Los Angeles Police Department’s “Weed and Seed” violence and crime prevention program, the stay-at-home mothers develop leadership and entrepreneurial skills that help them pursue economic stability. As an added value, the women have found in the group a place to vent their problems and “find solutions.”About 95 women have benefited from the program since its inception in 2004. “Here we forget about our problems,” said one of the 14 women gathered on a weekday morning in one of the school’s trailer classrooms. They meet every Wednesday (9-11 a.m.) while their children are in school. At the end of the day, they have a drawing where each one picks a bag with material for their next project. All the items are donated by a local company.Empowering, encouraging“Encouragement and empowerment is the name of the game,” said Ciketic after hearing the women talk about how through knitting and crocheting they have found an “extended family” in the group.“I started taking ESL classes and then learned about this group,” said Maria Consuelo Gaytan, a member of Meyler’s PTA who joined the project seven years ago.Married and the mother of a middle schooler and a second grader, Gaytan said that Ciketic — an artist and teacher who nonetheless knows little about knitting or crocheting — brings them a “lot of hope.”“She is our star, our example, and we learn from her how to help other people, no matter what,” said Gaytan, with happy tears sliding down her cheeks. “While we knit and sew we share our problems and support each other and also we have fun.”Some of the project participants are victims of abuse. Some have been laid off from their longtime jobs. Some have been evicted. And some are trying to cope with bouts of depression or anxiety. Most of them are English learners.“Some come with more difficult problems than others,” Gaytan noted. “So we empower them and help them to find a way out.”“I am so happy to be able to do something useful,” said newcomer Sara Mendoza, a mother of four children who was laid off from Jack in the Box, where she worked for 15 years, more recently as a store manager.If Ciketic cannot help them directly, she refers them to other resources, something the women said they are also learning, “to connect people with other people.”“I like coming here to learn and create,” said Nadia Rios, a mother of two young children and one of the few in the group fluent in English, which has turned her into the “assigned translator.”Since they joined the project they feel more relaxed, participants said. “I am not frightened of people anymore,” said Gonzalez, a professional seamstress who, inspired by the group, got permission to teach an extra sewing class on Thursdays to help the women perfect the trade.“Being a professional seamstress, she was concerned about the quality of the products,” noted Ciketic.‘Language is not a barrier’Quality is important because since June 2012 the group’s products (bags of all sizes, baby hats, scarves, baby boots, Valentine hearts) have been sold at the Crafted of the Port of Los Angeles, an artisan market in San Pedro that they joined with the Immaculate Heart Community’s sponsorship. Proceeds go to the women, who each receive an average of $50 weekly.The group also donates hats and baby boots for premature babies and babies born with no hands at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and at Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center Torrance; and scarves at the Handmade With Love, Especially For You!, a nonprofit that gives scarves to every woman who enters a battered women shelter. “Here we learn about helping someone beyond ourselves,” said Ciketic, a former youth ministry director at San Pedro’s Holy Trinity Church (her home parish), and a graduate of Mary Star of the Sea High School (where she later taught) and of Immaculate Heart College. “Dignity comes by giving back.”That connects with the Immaculate Heart Community’s mission of “building relationships in society to foster access of all persons to truth, dignity and full human development and strategically change practices and situations, which impede such access.”“And language is not a barrier,” said Bena Pradhan. She lives across the street from the school and was moved by curiosity when observing “all these women coming and going from school every week” carrying swollen bags. She had a lot of spare time and wanted to use it wisely, but did not know where to start.She asked her daughter (a teacher at the school) to find out “what were these women doing,” she smiles. “I was not doing anything at home.” Two years ago she joined the women and attends the group when she is in town, since she travels to her native Nepal every six months. The program offers her the opportunity to share with the other women — mostly Latina immigrants — about her culture and traditions.“And she has brought beautiful fabrics from her country,” said Angelica Bueno with eyes wide open, alluding to saris and other women’s clothing from India.Bueno, who joined the group five years ago, has taken the entrepreneurial teaching to another level. She graduated from a women’s nail designer program and has joined a marketing network. Following her lead, another woman in the group is about to become a nail designer as well.“I couldn’t even stand up and speak in public when I first got here,” said Bueno, “and now they have to stop me or I can’t stop talking,” she chuckled.Their families benefit as well. When asked how many of their children have excelled in school, all the women raised their hands. Most of their children have been honored as students of the month and some have gone to college, like Maria Renteria’s oldest of four children, who started attending the program with her when he was still in middle school. At 18, he is now majoring in architecture at Cal Poly Pomona.The extra income they receive helps their husbands as well they said, because they can at least pay one or two bills or have money in their pockets for their own personal expenses.Ciketic’s desire to help low-income women is rooted in the example of her own parents, Croatian immigrants who never advanced beyond grammar school, yet raised and educated their five children in San Pedro from what little they earned from fishing (her father) and working in fish canneries (her mother).“They [her parents] valued education and made sure we went to Catholic schools,” she said.In 2010, Ciketic retired from the Family Learning Center, but every Wednesday she meets the women to continue building community. In appreciation, the women gave her a quilt with a message from each of them in each knitted square.“So every night when I go to bed all these women are with me,” she said proudly.For more information about fINdings Art Center, email Annette Ciketic at [email protected].{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0222/spwomen/{/gallery}