I dream of painting and then I paint my dream. -Vincent Van Gogh
Norma Serrano had an idea and a desire years ago. She wanted to help women who have come upon hard times -in more ways than just financially. So she created an initiative that helps local women get back on their feet, which is what makes her this week's Valpo Life in the Spotlight.
Born and raised in Gary, Indiana, Serrano was a lively and vivacious child. She attended Lew Wallace High School and spent time on the school's swim team.
"I was loud, I was the life of the party, and I wasn't shy. But I was lost as an individual," Serrano admitted.
Serrano was looking for direction in her life. After graduating, she obtained a job as a secretary at Sears, Robuck and Company and stayed there for a number of years. After the birth of her first child, life changed for Serrano.
"All of a sudden I had this kid that I had to take care of. I had to do something," Serrano said.
And so she did. Serrano wanted a nice place for her and her daughter to live so she began to fix up the place where she lived, D-I-Y style. It came by way of cheesecake.
"At age 28 my life changed when I opened a Martha Stewart magazine. I learned to cook from that and then supplemented my income with cheesecake," Serrano said. "Then an issue came out about painting and I started going in that direction."
Serrano began a handyman business and learned many useful skills that she used in her home as well as others. She had two more children, bringing the total to three and a time came when she had to make a choice between her love of being a handy woman, painting, and fixing things or going back to work in corporate America.
"I'm a huge believer in faith. I decided one day I was done with excuses. I was praying and praying and then I went to a computer and created these flyers for my business," Serrano said. "So I took my two babies and my 14-year-old went door to door and gave out flyers. That's how I started Pretty Painters (now Excellence By Design). I started this business so I could be proud of myself and my work. I then hired women who also wanted to feel proud and beautiful...One thing led to another and people found out about us through word of mouth, and I had our first real job. It was year long got me $25,000! Then another job came along for U-Haul that got us even more money. We completed job on time and on budget and we still work for Uhaul doing work for them!""
Excellence by Design is a paint contracting company. Serrano is a licensed contractor and she and her team of lady painters do most of their work in Northwest Indiana and the Chicagoland areas. Interior and exterior work, floors, shelves, and many other painting services are offered for residential and commercial areas. She does her best to give the women on her team the opportunity and guidance that can help them be independent and confident in the business world and in their personal lives. At the same time, Serrano heads Girls and Paint. Girls and Paint is a nonprofit organization that is about empowering women through the trade of painting.
Before she could help anyone else, Serrano had to take care of herself.
"I used my business to bring myself up from the bottom," Serrano said. "I gained a confidence and sense of self-worth that I began to pass on to the women I mentored. If it's one thing that has changed my life it's the women that I have hired and mentored along the way. 99% of the people who work for me know nothing about painting. These women come to me broken."
The women that Serrano hires come to her having suffered abuse, poverty, neglect, and other hardships that can bring anyone to their knees. They feel useless and scared, thinking that their lives will never get better than the current state. She shows them the skills of her trade starting with the basics and works her way up to more advanced skills. As each woman catches on and develops her talents in the trade, confidence grows and so does her self-esteem and positive outlook. The hope that gleamed dimly now shines brightly and these women are able to take charge of their futures.
"Nothing more powerful than a women with hope. Not only are you affecting their lives you are changing their kids lives," Serrano said. "I believe that construction is so much like a woman's heart. Things are cracked and broken, but we go in and patch things up and make it look beautiful. Things get worse before they get better. You see this change and you're never the same. To bring in a women who has been abused or abandoned and to watch her life transform...there is nothing more rewarding."
Currently, Serrano has four ladies working for her. In the beginning, each one started not knowing how to clean paint brushes or buckets. Now they are doing beautiful work with different projects that Serrano gets. And this isn't the endgame for her. Serrano has plans for young girls as well.
"What I'm doing now is my dream. Another dream is to mentor high school freshmen girls. I want to mentor them in five key areas," Serrano said. "It will be about mentoring the girls to mentor. Love the girls who are younger than you. Give girls the opportunity to make the right decision."