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When the clients at the Fresh Start Women’s Foundation meet Susan Berman, they see a skilled, professional woman, a nationally certified counselor who is the CEO of an organization that last year helped 5,000 women overcome poverty, domestic violence, low self-esteem and a host of other challenges. They also see someone who, not so long ago, stood exactly where they stand.
A native of Santa Barbara, California, Berman was in her early 30s when she moved to Phoenix to be near her brother. A single mom with three children in grades six and seven, she had been struggling in California, running a daycare out of her home to make ends meet. “It was very, very stressful,” she says. “And while it was an honorable thing to do and it paid the bills, it was tough.”
She hoped to get a job in Phoenix, perhaps working in a convenience store. “I didn’t see myself as someone with any skills whatsoever,” she says.
Then someone told her about Fresh Start. Created by two sisters in the early 1990s, Fresh Start was originally based on a simple premise: that women could draw themselves out of poverty or other challenging circumstances if they were given the right help and encouragement, and that the first step for some women was to change their mindset.
Berman enrolled in the Fresh Start program and began to see her life transform. For the first time, she heard someone tell her that education was still an option. “I learned that I could go to school—that I should go to school—and that I had a responsibility to develop myself as a professional and an individual,” she says. “I’m the first person in my family to graduate with a college degree. I just didn’t know that people did it. I thought it was only for elite people.”
With funding from a federal Pell grant, Berman enrolled in a community college program, then transferred to Arizona State University. Her first class was political science. “I had no idea what ‘poly-sci’ was,” she says. “I literally sat there with my snack on my desk, which was an apple. I was 36 amongst these kids that were starting school and I was so excited to start. And I felt that way in every class.”
It took six grueling years to complete her bachelor’s degree in psychology and anthropology, all while working and raising a family. At one point she worked as a district manager for Tribune Newspapers, working from 1 to 9 a.m. “For several years I did not have a day off, period. I was working or at school, and it was quite a challenge to keep tabs on my kids and make sure they were doing well,” she says. “It became kind of a game, where every moment, bed was beckoning me.”
After graduating, she took a job with a social services agency in Mesa, Arizona. One day, she came across a brochure about a master’s in counseling offered by University of Phoenix. Berman saw how it could fit with her work schedule and she enrolled. “I desperately wanted to get my master’s degree and this program allowed me to live a life and do school,” she said. “It’s still a lot of work, and there’s no short cuts, but it was tailored to me and I could do it.”
Three years later, with a master’s degree in hand, Berman sought and achieved her national certification. She opened her own counseling practice, but after a few years realized she had a passion for designing and running programs for women, rather than doing direct counseling.
She worked for Maricopa County for 10 years, where she ended up running the workforce development program, then became director of the national Child Help agency. Two years ago, she saw an opening for the CEO of Fresh Start, the very organization that helped her turn her life around. She applied, and was hired.
As CEO, Berman is involved in a wide range of Fresh Start activities, from fundraising and writing grant applications, to configuring the programs that will be offered next. And she still gets to take part in direct counseling too, working with individuals and groups on skills such as communication and boundary-setting. “That’s training that I love to do,” she says.
The work is fantastically rewarding. Every day Berman sees women who are just like she was—boxed in by their own perceptions of what’s possible, but starting to learn that the world has so much more to offer them. “Fresh Start is not an entitlement program,” she says. “This is about someone who’s really ready to go and grow. They may not know what’s out there, they may not know how they’re going to do it, but they’re mentally and emotionally ready to do something.”
“To me, it’s just such a privilege to be able to participate in that process,” she says. “Someone did that for me, and now I get to turn around and provide that for someone else.”
Andrew Wagner-Chazalon is an award-winning writer and editor. His latest books are The Hidden World of Huckleberry Rock and the young adult novel, Frontlines.