Story by Kathy Pierre, Anderson Independent Mail Published 8:15 a.m. ET Dec. 25, 2018 | Updated 9:31 a.m. ET Dec. 26, 2018 

Five years ago, Stacie Cowan was laid off from her job at Anderson County Disability & Special Needs Board. She considers that the best thing that could’ve happened to her. Now, she’s in the unique position of running the program that changed her life.

In October, she started as the director of the Women and Children Succeeding program at Anderson Interfaith Ministry (AIM), working to enhance the lives of dozens of ambitious, low-income women through tuition and child care assistance.

Cowan, 45, started in the WACS program as a participant in 2012 so she could finish her bachelor’s degree at Clemson. She was a recently divorced single mom of two sons, who were 15 and 12.

“I was laid off work, and I felt like it was time to go back to school because I had been a junior for years and years and was still working, so I wanted to get my degree,” Cowan said.

The program accepts about 20 women each year and works to remove many of the barriers to getting a degree they encounter. Aside from tuition and child care help, the program also assigns mentors to the women, gives them a monthly stipend for gas, a quiet place to study or do schoolwork, access to the other forms of help AIM offers the community, and teaches life skills classes that include lessons on financial literacy and professional development.

Kristi King-Brock, executive director of AIM, said she’s excited about what Cowan will bring to the program as director.

“We’re so excited to see a program go full circle,” King-Brock said. “She’s truly walked in those shoes.”

Cowan is the program’s first director who previously went through it, so she has a different perspective on how the program should run once she gets settled into the role. One of her first priorities will be to make the program’s mentorship component much more significant because of the experience she had with it.

The mentor she was matched with more than five years ago, Eileen Mendyka, is still a big part of her life: She was her real estate agent for her home — which she bought with WACS’ help. They still meet regularly as friends.

“She has been the best thing that they gave me,” Cowan said, blinking back tears. “I graduated from the program in 2013, and to this day, we’re still friends. We actually had dinner this week because we stay in contact, and we talk. Back then, it was a requirement, and to me, me and Eileen just love each other, so it’s a requirement between us now.”

Throughout the years, Cowan would enroll in a couple classes at a time so she could finish her health science degree, but life would always get in the way. Whether it was the two jobs she worked or paying for care for her kids.

Cowan found out about the program while she was still employed with the county and didn’t have any plans to make any changes. She was at an event at the Civic Center of Anderson where vendors and other community groups had booths set up. She only went to the AIM table because she saw a picture of one of her coworkers on the WACS signs.

“Really, it was about being nosy, but I took the information and I held on to it,” Cowan said. “Then I got laid off and everything fell into place.”

Once Cowan became part of the program, she finished her degree in a year. One semester she took 16 credits all toward the goal of graduating as quickly as possible.

“I wanted to get in and get out, so I took as many classes as my schedule could fit,” she said. “And I did everything in a year … because I knew if I could do it quickly it would be better for my kids.”

That year, she was a full-time student who had to juggle working on weekends and trying to be a parent, daughter and friend to her close-knit family. On an average weekday, she would drop one son off at school, take the other to the bus stop, then go to class. She’d leave Clemson, pick up her sons and take them to their extracurricular activities, get dinner prepared and help them with their homework.

“If there was a football game, I was there. If there was a track meet, I was there. I might be reading a book for school at one of the events, but I tried to support them. I just knew for a whole year, I had to give up a piece of myself.”

Cowan, who now has a master’s degree in management and leadership, is preparing to start the application process for the next group of women for the WACS program. She’s already contending with a $114,000 cut in AIM’s child care budget from DSS that will begin to affect them in May.

Cowan is far from the program’s only success story, other women who have gone on to be microbiologists and social workers as WACS graduates.

She wants more people to know about what the program brings to the community, but she doesn’t want them to just think it’s a program to get free child care. It’s much more than that and requires much more from participants.

“I don’t know of any other program like this, and I think it’s wonderful,” Cowan said. “It encourages moms to do better for their children.”