2023 CalWORKs Association Conference Speakers

SPARC Students

Using Human-Centered Design, parenting CalWORKs students are conducting their own research regarding conditions and barriers within the public assistance and higher education systems, they are designing solutions that make sense to the families living within those systems, and they are prototyping and advocating for the implementation of new ideas and out-of-the-box solutions to systems leaders and policy-makers.

Project SPARC is intended reduce poverty among families of parenting college students and increase transfers and degrees. Ultimately, the program has the potential to increase economic justice for California’s families and to reduce the wage gap for women in California.

Dr. Brenda Combs

Dr. Brenda Combs is a symbol of inspiration and perseverance to all who meet her. A little over a decade ago, she was a homeless crack addict, a petty criminal, a gaunt and hopeless wreck who had been shot and beaten and raped during the endless years she called “a freeway underpass in the worst part of Phoenix home.” It took hitting rock bottom for Dr. Combs to find the strength to turn her life around on a blistering summer day.

Dr. Combs now spreads a message of hope wherever she goes. Her journey has not been an easy one, however. Growing up in a middle-class family in Northern Arizona, she fell into a bad crowd, began using drugs, and dropped out of school.

Her life continued on a downward spiral, leading to her serving jail time and becoming homeless. During her darkest days on the streets, she endured unspeakable trauma, including being beaten, shot, and raped.

Her journey, which has been called “From Homeless to Hero” by local media, has received tremendous national coverage, including an article in Reader’s Digest and interviews on The Today Show and CNN News. She has also appeared on radio talk shows across the country and been invited to sing and share her message at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.

“If I can do it, anybody can do it,” she says. “I believe in myself and my ability to do my best. I’m intelligent and I’m capable of achieving greatness. I think every person has inside of them what it takes to succeed. The day I woke up on the streets and someone had stolen the shoes off my feet was the day I knew I had to change my life. I knew God had a better plan for my life than this.”

Dr. Combs began taking major steps to renter society as a productive individual. She entered rehab and worked hard to overcome her addictions. While living in low-income housing, she took a part-time job at a school located in an at-risk neighborhood not far from the streets that had been her “home.” As she worked with these children, she knew she had found her life’s calling: to teach and to inspire by sharing her own story of overcoming tremendous obstacles.

Once she set her sights on becoming a teacher, there was no stopping her. As a single mother of a young son who suffered a stroke at birth, she juggled three jobs while earning a bachelor’s degree in human services. She taught at a school for children with special needs and continued to pursue her education at Grand Canyon University, where she earned a master’s degree in special education in 2007. She has since received a doctorate in organizational leadership with an emphasis in education under a scholarship presented to her by Grand Canyon University, becoming one of their first doctoral students. She travels around the country sharing her story as the university’s “ambassador of inspiration & achievement” with a variety of audiences, including youth groups, churches, and professional organizations.

A victim of domestic violence in the past, Dr. Brenda Combs now serves as an advocate for domestic violence awareness. She also lobbies for the rights of the homeless community and, in 2009, was named a national ambassador for the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association’s “Power to End Stroke” campaign. She was selected by the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury as an “Arizona woman of inspiration” two years in a row and The Martin Luther King Stand Up for Justice Award!

Dawn Shaw

Her face may be half-paralyzed, but that hasn’t stopped Dawn Shaw from living a fulfilling life and creating confidence in others. This is in part due to her parents taking her out into the world, exposing her to many places and people, rather than hiding her away. She came to recognize that the choices she made about how to live with her facial difference impacted her outlook on life.

Dawn has published three books, including her memoir Facing Up to It and more recently, an inspirational guide titled Facial Shift, Adjusting to an Altered Appearance. She hosted a series, still on YouTube, called Friending the Mirror, and has given a TEDx talk titled Beauty is an Inside Job. She also acted, and sang, in the movie Happy Face, which is currently available on most video-on-demand streaming platforms.

Outside of speaking and writing, Dawn raises Icelandic horses, collects and restores model horses, and indulges in a passion for live music.