There’s a mood of dispirited weariness among the welfare mothers crowded with their toddlers into the living room of Carol Sasaki’s Pullman, Wash. home. Buffeted between indifferent bureaucracies and minimum-wage job prospects, the women have grown accustomed to frustration and rejection. Yet they look up expectantly as their host, a reed-slim blonde in a brass-buttoned blazer and pleated cream skirt, makes a self-assured entrance, slides onto a folding chair and kicks off her shoes. “I was a seventh-grade dropout and an unwed mother on welfare,” says Carol, 31. “People told me I was either stupid or crazy. But I made it through college and got my master’s degree.” Then she delivers a striking message: “I got off welfare. So can you.”
For many welfare mothers in Washington State, Carol Sasaki is more than just a role model; she is their last best hope. Over the past three years she has inspired 850 welfare recipients to follow her lead by bootstrapping their way into college and staying there with solid academic grades. Operating on a shoestring budget, she runs HOME—Helping Ourselves Means Education—a “sorority for poor people,” out of her modest home. Carol was one of 19 Americans recently honored by President Reagan as “heroes of the heart” for voluntary community work.
Carol offers college-bound welfare mothers vital tips on overcoming such obstacles as finding financial aid and affordable day care. But the heart of HOME is a buddy system among the 3,000 participants, who call one another regularly for practical and moral support. “People think welfare mothers don’t go to college because they are stupid, lazy and don’t want to get off the dole,” Carol says. “That’s nonsense. The problem is that everybody tells them they can’t do it. Somebody has to tell them they can.”
Carol knows what it is like to live with despair. Sexually abused by a relative while growing up in a Seattle suburb, Carol Bolliger was 13 when she ran away from home and school. In San Francisco she found dubious refuge for five months with a stripper whose boyfriend was a Hell’s Angels biker. From there she drifted to a California commune and then to a New York yoga institute. At 22, she tried to drown herself after being discarded by a lover.
Surviving on welfare and mental-disability payments, Carol crammed for high school equivalency exams and enrolled at Seattle University in 1978, only to drop out after a single quarter. Neither her work as a housekeeper nor a series of brief affairs did anything to bolster her self-esteem. Pregnant at 24 by a man who refused to acknowledge paternity, she backed out of an abortion at the last minute, deciding, “I need this baby to love me.”
After the birth of son David in June 1980, Carol went back on welfare—sometimes spending the night in bus stations when money ran out. Then a friend, Kay Hick ox, told her she appeared to have only two choices in life: She could acquire some vocational skills or become a prostitute. That stark assessment spurred Carol to investigate public assistance programs that might support her through college. She was 26 in 1981 when she entered Washington State University with the help of government loans. Rearing David in a federally subsidized apartment, she carried a double course load and refused to give up.
In just three years Carol collected a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and a master’s in adult education. She also became a self-taught expert in making Byzantine public assistance regulations work for her. “I learned the hard way, after the fact, that it could have been a lot less difficult for me,” Carol says. “I was determined to share what I knew with other women on welfare.”
Married since April 1985 to Glenn Sasaki, a Washington State University postdoctoral research assistant in molecular biochemistry, Carol is seeking corporate sponsorship to make HOME a nationwide program. But the last thing she wants is to find her self-help group turning into another rigid bureaucracy. “HOME is not an agency,” she says. “We just try to help people profit from the experience of others. For anyone looking for easy answers,” she adds, “we don’t have any. Making it through college and getting off welfare is still horribly, horribly difficult.”