Larry LaRue: In 32 years in Tacoma, a group has prepared 17,000 people for better jobs

As she was turning 48, Julie Kaas found herself floundering in a new lifestyle, one so foreign she decided to Google it.

“Newly divorced and separated,” she typed.

That seemed, last August, to be her identity.

There was, and is, far more to her.

Though her husband of 25 years had left, Kaas remained the mother of three teenage sons. She was a preschool teacher, having earned a pair of two-year degrees. And she was a smart commuter, traveling the 20 miles between her Graham home and her Sumner job on a motorcycle that got about 60 miles to the gallon.

But what Kaas knew as she typed those words on her computer was that she needed to be more.

“I was making $15,000-$20,000 a year, and even with child support there were months when paying the bills was difficult,” she said. “I knew I had to change careers. I love what I do, but it wasn’t going to pay enough.”

One of the first sites Google called up on her search was Washington Women’s Employment & Education, or WWEE.

“We help women get jobs, but we help prepare them for a career more than a job,” CEO Robin Lester said of the nonprofit. “We help them develop workplace intelligence, what’s needed of themselves to make a difference, how to move from where they are to where they want to be.”

Kaas came to see what it was about just as a five-week course was starting. One of the first women she met was instructor Shelby McCulloch, who pointed out the initial step toward improving yourself: Stop blaming others for your status.

“That scared me to death,” Kaas said. “I rode home that first night bawling. They had me way out of my comfort zone.”

But she came back.

Many women — and now, sometimes, men — have done the same. In WWEE’s 32 years in Tacoma, it has served 17,000 people, Lester said.

“We’re trying to help people living on the edge,” she said. “Low-income women have no paid time off, so if someone gets sick — their kids, maybe a parent they’re caring for — they can’t take time off and keep their job.”

One of McCulloch’s first questions for Kaas was: What do you want to do with your life?

“I thought about becoming an occupational therapist,” she said.

By the time she completed her five-week course, Kaas was computer-literate enough to have learned Excel, Power Point and Microsoft Office. She’d put together a résumé and a portfolio.

“I’d learned how to dress professionally, how to interview, and found my confidence again,” Kaas said.

WWEE supports its “graduates” with more than confidence. Thanks to corporate and private donations, they have clothing for women and men to get them ready for interviews and work.

As Kaas was in training, photographer Barbara Kinney — who had worked the Clinton White House — followed the progress of WWEE students and took a special interest in Kaas.

Kinney’s job now? Working for Maria Shriver’s “The Shriver Report,” which became a 400-page position paper on “the alarming economic insecurity of American women and their families.”

Released this month, the report includes essays written by such women as Shriver and Beyonce. Many stories come from women trying to change their economic status.

Like Kaas. The first story in the report is hers.

“Maria Shriver met with President Obama this week to talk about this, basically trying to get a dialogue going on women and poverty,” Lester said. “At the end of the report is talk about what’s next, what people can do.”

Oh, and there’s one last photograph at the end of the book. It’s of Julie Kaas, riding her Yamaha V-Star 650.

She’s not completely certain where it will take her but, while she’s working part time in that Sumner preschool, she’s about to begin online classes.

“If I take two classes per semester, I’ll have my bachelor’s degree in 21/2 years,” Kaas said. “After that, we’ll see about occupational therapy programs.”