A self-sufficiency success

Poverty to prosperity for hard-working Hoosier

By Jennifer Jill Fowler, Herald-Times Staff Writer

May 12, 1999

Gwen Jones installs a window treatment Tuesday at a residence in Bell Trace.
Staff photo by Mia Song

Gwen Jones installs a window treatment Tuesday at a residence in Bell Trace. Staff photo by Mia Song

Growing up the oldest of five in a small town in Alabama, Gwen Jones never imagined she'd one day own her own business.

Now in her fourth year as a self-employed decorator in Bloomington, Jones hopes to inspire others to become self-sufficient.

"You have to, at some point, make up your mind that 'I can't depend on everybody else,'" said Jones, of Sheer Elegance drapery designs.

For Jones, that point didn't come until sometime after she completed a Bloomington self-sufficiency program through the South Central Community Action Program office.

Self-sufficiency programs help people with limited resources set goals and make the connections they need to reach them.

"I basically lived on welfare all of my childhood," Jones said.

Jones moved from Alabama to Columbus, Ind., in 1987.

She lived in Section 8 government subsidized housing and enrolled in a self-sufficiency program. About a year or so later, she moved to Bloomington and again lived in Section 8 housing. She enrolled in a Bloomington self-sufficiency program and worked part time in retail. She also enrolled at Indiana University part time to study transportation management.

In 1990, she got a full-time job with Federal Express and quit school.

Toward the end of her 8-year stint at the overnight express company, Jones started Sheer Elegance a window treatment consultation and installation business.

Jones, who by then was living with her husband, Ken, and two daughters, Alicia and Stephanie, wanted to buy draperies for the front window of their Troy Court home.

"I had Sears come out for a quote and the woman said it would be $1,200 and I just said, 'OK, thank you,'" Jones said.

Having some knack for sewing, Jones decided to make the window dressing herself with a little time and $300 in fabric. That's when the idea struck her that she could do the same for other people.

One day in January 1997, she decided to quit her job and give her business full attention. "I decided I was going to use all of my energy for my own business rather than for someone else's," she said, standing in the middle of her home office surrounded by scads of material samples and design books. "I virtually came home one evening and said 'I'm done.'"

Life hasn't been the same. Just ask her husband, Ken.

"She's taken over my entire house," he joked.

But it's paid off. Jones' annual sales have gone from $7,000 to $45,000 to $63,000.

A recent 21-state study has found that America's welfare rolls have dropped further and faster than predicted from more than 5 million families in 1994 to just 2.7 million at the end of 1998. But not many who have made it off welfare have enjoyed the success Jones has. The study indicates that many still have not escaped poverty.

There are about 45 to 60 people, both single people and families, in South Central Community Action Program's various self-sufficiency programs at any given time, according to Rob Young, program coordinator.

"Our economy mandates there be a certain amount of unemployment and welfare mandates that everybody go to work," he said. "So you have two government entities at cross purposes. We are the guide through the system."

Jones credits her "burning desire to succeed" and her faith for the success. "Oh God, it's been good," said Jones. "I look to Him for the wisdom and I think He showed me the ideas. But I had to make it happen."

Motivation is the key, said Joan Maynard, self-sufficiency program case manager for South Central Community Action Program, which oversees several types of such programs for residents in Brown, Monroe, Morgan and Owen counties who are on their way to self-sufficiency. "It depends on how hard that person wants to work and how much energy they want to put into it," Maynard said. "It takes a lot of hard work and it takes a lot of belief in yourself and that's what Gwen has."

The programs network with other organizations, such as Head Start, the Division of Family and Children's Services or Bloomington Housing Authority.

"Sometimes it's walking them through the system and then out of the system into the world of education and work," said Maynard. "It's some hand holding during a time when you need it." For some of the self-sufficiency programs, success is defined as reaching an income above 150 percent of the area poverty level. In this area, for a family of four, that's about $25,000 a year.

But there's no set time frame for completion of the program.

Jones, who works from her home, is still setting goals.

Eventually, she'd like to have a store front.

"I really wanted to be self-sufficient in the real meaning and be a good positive example for my kids," she said.

For more information about how to become enrolled in a self-sufficiency program, call 335-3608 or 335-3609.

How to enroll

For information about how to become enrolled in a self-sufficiency program, call 335-3608 or 335-3609.

Reporter Jennifer Jill Fowler can be reached at 331-4363 or by e-mail at fowler@heraldt.com.