Woman on the Rise – Teresa

Imagine going through a program aimed at providing a second chance, and quickly discovering your second chance is becoming a member of the program’s staff. That’s what happened to 2018 Together We Bake grad Teresa, who today is a full-time TWB production assistant. 

“I was always a person that went from job to job. When I didn’t like somewhere I worked, I would up and leave,” she says. “I’ve grown a lot—just being here. I like everyone I work with. At other jobs it wasn’t the right time or the right place or the right people. I’ve been through a lot of jobs and it’s like at 38, finally, this one seems like it’s going to stick.”

Teresa’s path from a hodgepodge of employment stints—in daycare, home healthcare and retail, to name a few—began in 2018, when she joined the class of TWB’s first-ever summer session. 

A prolonged stretch of joblessness found her and her sons living with her mother, which worked for a while before circumstances forced a move out on her own. She landed at the ARHA housing program in Alexandria, where she first heard about TWB. 

“When I was introduced to the program it was pretty much, ‘You guys are going to learn how to bake.’ But I got a lot more than I expected,” she says. “We had classes where we opened up and talked about things that were going on in our lives and for me, the biggest thing I got out of the program is I opened up a lot more. Normally I’m a real quiet person. I don’t really tell people too much of my business. But in this program it was like you earned some extra sisters, extra family, and I got to feel comfortable with the ladies and opened up about things I would never speak about. It was pretty much a second home.”

Teresa relished the opportunity to interact with women from different backgrounds and circumstances, but all with a common denominator: The need for a second chance. “Everyone has their own problems, but when you get the chance to meet these people you realize they are just like you,” she says. “You might be looking at a person and you’d never think they went through so much stuff. I always say you can never judge a person by their appearance. You can see someone every day and they’re happy go lucky, and they’re going through things you could never imagine people have to go through.”

A dedicated baking enthusiast, Teresa thrived in the kitchen. Soon after graduation, as orders for Together We Bake’s cookies, granola and apple chips began to pick up for the holiday rush, Program Manager Colida Johnson, herself a TWB grad, asked Teresa if she could help out a few hours a week. “After that they decided to keep me on. I came on part-time after the new year, working two days a week, five hours a day. And then this year as the holidays were coming around again, I was able to work five days a week, as many hours as they needed me,” Teresa says. “And then Colida came into the kitchen one day [in October] asking if I wanted to be salaried. I’m now full-time and salaried. And it’s great!”

Having just completed her first session as an official staff member, Teresa says she enjoyed helping women prepare for the ServSafe exam each class takes at the end of their session, as well as building camaraderie. “I get to interact more with them because they are in the kitchen a lot—different people, different personalities. I love to learn their stories, and to give advice and get advice.”

Above all, as a student and now a staffer, Teresa relishes the TWB vibe. “They are very genuine people and they accept you. You can tell them something and you know it’s not going to leave outside these doors,” she says. “It’s pretty much a second home. You feel safe, and you don’t get that everywhere you go.”   

–Cathy Applefeld Olson