After her gas and electricity service was cut off in February, Luz Almeraz began waking at 3 a.m. to read her nursing textbook by candlelight.
Working as a nurse was her lifelong dream, but the single mother of five decided she had to quit her training.
"My children are important to me. They need electricity. They need food," she says. And because she was in school, even with Section 8 housing, she couldn't provide it.
But a new kind of support program gave Almeraz's story a happy ending. She graduated as a licensed practical nurse in June, beaming as her children looked on.
Almeraz was admitted into Pathways to Healthcare, a partnership of Pima Community College and the county's OneStop Career Center.
The program provided about $12,000 to cover her student loan and $300 to get the utilities turned back on. A few months later, when money got tight again, she received $325 to restore water service along with help applying for a lower rate.
What sets the program apart is its explicit focus on people living in poverty - especially the poorest of the poor, those receiving cash assistance. About 40 percent of participants have children.
The experiment, funded under the Affordable Care Act, aims to address participants' barriers to training and employment, and then help them land and keep a good job.
Students whose assessments show they have inadequate math or reading skills get intensive catch-up classes and screening, if necessary, for learning disabilities. Sixty percent of people beginning the program test at a middle school level or lower in literacy and 85 percent score that low in math.
Those short on money for rent, transportation, utilities, equipment or licensing tests can get emergency help and financial counseling. As of this summer, they also can get up to $900 in child-care vouchers.
But perhaps most significantly, participants can go back to school with the same supports, accumulating progressively higher skill levels - and earning potential.
As of the most recent quarter, 871 people had enrolled in the Pathways program, and 227 were employed at an average wage of $11.44 an hour.
After students graduate, they can enroll in a pilot boot camp/charm school called "15 days to a job offer." With a 40-hour-a-week schedule and a strict power-suit dress code, graduates learn how to search for a job, present their qualifications and connect with the person actually doing the hiring - the one who might choose to overlook experience deficits or a spotty work history because of a stellar first impression and follow-through.
"People who find that the job market is competitive, or they don't have the experience, it's usually that they don't know how to look for a job," says Cheryl Bakari, the employability skills instructor. "No one teaches us that. People don't spend as much time looking for work as they think they spend looking for work."
There are a lot of jobs out there for certified nurse assistants and medical assistants, she says, and many of those employers seek out new graduates.
New phlebotomists often have a harder time finding jobs because employers like to see hospital experience and the personal warmth required to coax patients fearful of needles. The placement rate for that program is about 10 percent, compared with more than 80 percent for graduates in the medical records and health information technology track, says Amanda Abens, who coordinates the program at Pima.
For Adelina McKenna, who coordinates the financial supports students receive, the effects of the program are clear. "The more we support them, the more likely they are to get to their goal, which is self-sufficiency."
Almeraz, who is awaiting her licensing exam, says she doesn't think she would have made it through if she hadn't been steered to the program.
"It's great for single moms who want to go back to school and don't know how to start again," she says. "I just want to find a job and start working, for my kids and myself, doing what I want. I want to be able to say this is my house because I bought it."
The success Almeraz has had and the value she has placed on education are already affecting her family. Her two eldest sons, ages 18 and 20, attend college in Illinois on baseball scholarships. Their studies, her eldest says, are inspired by their mom.
Almeraz's 16-year-old daughter earns straight A's, serves on the student council and is being scouted for a softball scholarship.
And Almeraz's sister, also a single mom relying on government assistance, is considering going back to school.
Almeraz already is preparing for her next step. She plans to take the prerequisites for Pima's registered nurse program in the fall.
Contact reporter Carli Brosseau at email@example.com or 573-4197. On Twitter: @carlibrosseau