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Mothers Owning Their Power, Authoring Their Futures

Mothers Owning Their Power, Authoring Their Futures

Jeremiah Program disrupts generational poverty two generations at a time.

Adrienne van der Valk

When 5-year-old Toki holds her mother’s hand and walks through her apartment door, she enters a world that is friendly, nurturing, and safe. The sound of little feet stomping down the hallway is normal. No one minds if she occasionally forgets to use her “inside voice.” There are no strangers here—literally or figuratively. Toki, her little brother, and their mother Alyssa live in a building inhabited exclusively by families like theirs: single mothers with young children.

“My daughter, she thinks all apartments are like our apartment building,” laughs Alyssa. “I think it's beautiful, and I wish that was the case. She calls our building our ‘Jeremiah City.’”

Toki, Alyssa, and their neighbors are part of Jeremiah Program, a national organization with a mission to disrupt the cycle of poverty for single mothers and their children, two generations at a time. Through career-track education, coaching and life-skills training, housing, and quality early childhood education support, Jeremiah Program is empowering Alyssa and 600 other single mothers in seven U.S. cities to take control of their lives and their families’ futures.

THE NEED

Alyssa found out about Jeremiah Program while she was living in a shelter; she’d been forced to flee her home after her children’s father became violent, a circumstance many other women in temporary housing share. Faced with the chronic stress of starting over alone, Alyssa found herself at a loss for where to begin.

“Single mothers definitely face a lack of support, whether that be financially or just parenting support,” she says. “Sometimes you get so overwhelmed with just trying to survive and provide for your children and your future that you can't take that time to pause and really research all of the resources that are out there … [like] food support or childcare vouchers, those kinds of things. While each of those pieces exist … bring[ing] them all together in a timely fashion on top of all the things that [mothers] have to do on a daily basis to take care of their children—it is a challenge.”

These challenges only increase for mothers who experience violence, trauma, medical crises, addiction, or long-term instability due to unemployment and steep housing costs. There are more than 8 million single mothers with more than 15 million children living in the United States. Single mother households are disproportionately impacted by artificial and systemic barriers that limit their socioeconomic mobility.

Single mothers households are nearly six times more likely to live in poverty than married couples with children (41 percent compared to 7 percent); black and Latina single mothers are 60 percent more likely to live in poverty than white single mothers. - U.S. Census

Poverty does not erase the unique gifts that each mother and each child offer society, but experiencing hunger, housing insecurity, educational disruption, and health barriers can keep families from achieving the economic stability they need to realize their dreams. The stress of living in poverty can lead to depression and interfere with critical thinking and problem solving which, in turn, can interfere with effective parenting. Children in poverty also experience harmful stress and the related issues of homelessness, domestic violence, or neglect.

“When I think about trauma and poverty, in a lot of ways they are synonymous due to the cascading statistics that accompany inequity,” says Chastity Lord, President and CEO of Jeremiah Program. “There's a real cost to poverty for moms—and single moms in particular. There are constantly these tradeoffs that are being made between whether I’m going to prioritize my education or I'm going to prioritize my family’s education. And what Jeremiah Program does so beautifully is create an equation that allows both to be true. We're going to prioritize each other and move along this journey to ensure that we disrupt generational poverty not only for ourselves self, but also for our children.”

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FIVE PILLARS OF THE JEREMIAH PROGRAM

Generational poverty is defined as at least two generations of a family being born into poverty, severely limiting their ability to overcome, or even improve, their situations. Families experiencing generational poverty live in constant survival mode, barely able to think about the future, much less take action to create a sustained change that leads to a better and more independent life. 

The web of challenges single mothers in poverty face requires a multifaceted, integrated solution. Jeremiah Program provides the solution by simplifying the complex landscape through a holistic, data-driven, two-generation approach.

The “2-gen” theory of change addresses both individual and systemic barriers, supporting family ecosystems that value and support Jeremiah Program mothers and their children.

This includes confronting the policies and systems that harm families experiencing poverty, such as discriminatory housing practices, overpriced daycare, limited access to quality education, and social isolation. By making available the necessary tools and resources to help mothers and children overcome these barriers, Jeremiah Program supports families in redefining and reframing what is possible and in cultivating sustained success and agency in their own lives.

The Jeremiah Program model is based around five points of intervention or “pillars,” all supported by individual and group coaching. They are:

  • Career-track education
  • Childcare/early childhood education
  • Safe, affordable housing
  • Empowerment and life skills
  • Community support

Each component of the Jeremiah Program model is necessary for success, but none stands alone. Anchoring the pillars in community and autonomy increases the opportunity for overall success.

“They come through the doors deeply grateful for the opportunity, but each of these different pillars really moves them to this powerful agency where they start to understand that they are, indeed, experts on their lives.”
- Chastity Lord, Jeremiah Program President and CEO

EDUCATION

A critical stepping stone for low-income mothers striving to find a pathway out of poverty is the attainment of a college degree. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, each level of education past high school results in a 32 percent reduction in the likelihood of a single mother living in poverty. Just 13 percent of single mothers with a college degree live in poverty compared to 41 percent with only a high school degree.

When women enter Jeremiah Program, they meet with a family coach who works with them to set educational goals and choose a career-track path. Accessing and succeeding in a degree program is a requirement and a central focus at Jeremiah. It’s also an opportunity to engage in long-term planning and personal development that may have been previously impossible given how much energy mothers must put into meeting their families’ immediate needs.

Kylie, who lives with her three-year-old daughter at Jeremiah Program’s Fargo campus, is studying health services administration. “I'm going for a bachelor's degree at MSUM [Minnesota State University Moorhead],” she says. “I recently graduated from the Minnesota State Community and Technical College with a diploma in medical coding and an associate’s degree in medical administrative assistance, so, I am about halfway there. … I'm really passionate about all the things that I'm doing, and I know that I'm going for a solid career in healthcare. With all the things that I'm doing, who knows what I can do?”

Nailah, a mother of two who participates in Jeremiah Program’s Brooklyn program, is also looking to the future and envisioning how she will put her knowledge and skills to use. “With the support of my family coach, my goal [is] finishing my last semester, graduating with my associate’s, and continuing on with my bachelor’s degree,” she says. “I plan on operating my own nonprofit organization for women that have the same experience as me … and really making a difference in society. That’s my goal.”

CHILDCARE AND EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION

Jeremiah Program mothers are partners in their children’s education, even as early as infancy. This critical component of the two-generation model is based on years of research that finds that the younger an individual accesses early childhood education, the more likely she is to avoid or overcome generational poverty. Not only does ensuring access to affordable, high-quality childhood education programs help mothers in their own educational attainment, it mitigates some of the negative impacts of poverty, and prepares young children for success in school and beyond.

Each child in Jeremiah Program is enrolled in a high-quality early childhood education center that helps lays the foundation for academic success and a future filled with options and opportunities. Researcher James Heckman has found that birth-to-five preschool programs demonstrate positive effects on health and economic prosperity for children into their mid-30s; however, low-income children have limited access to quality early childhood education due to the often untenable costs of such programs.

Jeremiah Program also provides childcare while mothers attend their coaching sessions and life skills classes so mothers can focus on their personal and professional growth. Knowing their children are safe and well cared for provides peace of mind for mothers—and contributes to their success.

“The volunteers that watch the kids are very trustworthy, so I have nothing to worry about,” says Nailah. “I can just focus on what I have to do, and it gives me a good space to actually put myself first, put myself forward, knowing that my children are in good hands.”

“The childcare is a lifesaver. I'm not sure what I would do if I didn't have childcare,” says Isabella, a mother living at Jeremiah Program’s St. Paul campus.

"I'm able to focus on my schoolwork. I'm able to focus on household chores. I'm able to go to medical appointments if I need to. And it's great because she's not in a daycare where they're just essentially babysitting. I'm doing what I need to do while she is also learning a ton and developing relationships. So, it's really just a win, win situation for me and her."

- Isabella from St. Paul.

HOUSING

Single mothers cite housing insecurity as the most persistent barrier to graduating from school while supporting their children’s academic needs. According to the nonprofit National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the most cited reasons for family homelessness are insufficient income and lack of affordable housing. In the U.S. today, for every 100 households classified as extremely low-income, just 29 units are both available and affordable. And the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University found that, for more than 40 million American families, housing consumes more than 30 percent of their income, forcing them to make nearly impossible decisions between housing, food, transportation, or healthcare.

At the Fargo, Austin, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Rochester SE campuses, Jeremiah Program offers mothers and their children safe and affordable housing on residential campuses; the Brooklyn and Boston programs ensure that each family has safe housing in place. Lord says the stability this housing provides offers women “a space to be able to exhale,” allowing them to grow as parents and community members, and to succeed as students.

“It's been a long time—maybe all of my life—that I can really reflect on and see that I was not living in a very safe environment or was always in an environment where I was staying with somebody,” Alyssa reflects. “And, with young children and in a home where somebody doesn't have children, or isn't sympathetic to young individuals, it can be very much like walking on eggshells all the time. Here, everybody in the building is empathetic and kind towards children. We have a locked facility that you need a key fob in order to get into. There's a review system for anyone that enters the building. So, it's a very safe environment.”

For Isabella, having safe, affordable housing has been a key that unlocked many of the opportunities she needed to establish her independence and her identity as the head of her own household. 

“If it weren't for Jeremiah Program, I wouldn't be able to afford being on my own right now,” she says. “Being able to have a home that I can come to and have for my daughter really allows me to expand on other areas of my life and save money. Otherwise, in regular housing, I would be putting all my money into rent. It just helps me not to struggle as much financially, and it really is a safe place to live. And I like the fact that I don't have to depend on anyone else for my housing situation.”

Isabella explains how Empowerment has positively influenced her life at Jeremiah Program and beyond.

EMPOWERMENT AND LIFE SKILLS

Agency is a critical component of Jeremiah Program. Mothers begin engaging in deep self-exploration work as soon as they join, participating in a 16-week Empowerment course that equips them to identify and overcome barriers to their self-determination. Throughout the program, each mother also attends weekly life-skills workshops in career exploration, financial literacy, positive parenting, healthy living, and more. She also meets with a coach to develop a long-term education and career plan, and to set smaller goals designed to keep her on track to succeed. 

"The one aspect of the program which has made the biggest difference for me, personally, is to have a coach that helps me prioritize, work on goals, holds me accountable, and supports me when I'm struggling or overwhelmed."  says Valerie, a mother living at the Rochester SE campus.

“My coach has been very supportive, encouraging, and patient with me," says Valerie, a mother living at the Rochester SE campus. "One thing I tend to do when overwhelmed with tasks is to procrastinate or put off to the last minute and, at times, give up on the task altogether. So, to overcome my procrastination, we have been meeting weekly, setting goals, and doing at least two-to-three tasks that we have to do together.” 

The Empowerment course equips each mother with a toolbox of techniques that teaches her to leverage her internal motivation, restructure negative thought patterns, and act on what she believes is best for her and her children. Many women enter the program questioning their capacity to make choices; Empowerment lays the groundwork for them to embrace the belief that they are the experts in their own lives.

“I'm more comfortable in my own skin. I know what I want for myself and for my family, and I am more comfortable going after it,” says Victoria, a mom who has been participating in Jeremiah Program’s Boston-based program for four years. “They helped me tremendously with communication skills and being able to speak in front of people, whether that's teachers, professionals, doctors. And they've also helped me understand that - you know - that I'm not only a mom, I am many other things. I have to understand that there's more to me than what I do and that I should value myself first and love myself first to be able to give that to anyone else.”

Victoria talks about how being in Jeremiah Program has helped her evolve her relationship with her son

COMMUNITY

If housing, education, childcare, and life skills are the pillars, community is the roof that connects them all and makes Jeremiah Program a safe, nurturing, yet motivating home for mothers while they build the lives they want. By taking the journey together, the women of Jeremiah Program develop networks of cooperative relationships, so they know they are not alone in addressing their struggles or in celebrating their triumphs.

“One of the things that the Jeremiah Program does is allow people to be in community with moms who have a shared experience, a shared identity, as well as shared goal,” says Lord. “They  understand that where they are doesn't have to determine where they go, and that community is a deeply powerful aspect of that journeyl. It's the tactical aspects of the program, but it's also these adaptive investments that moms are bringing to each other. That is the secret magic that I hope everybody understands and holds.”

Victoria says that, of all the program’s helpful aspects, community has made the biggest difference for her.

“When I first started, I was this single mom not knowing what I was getting myself into. My son was three years old, and I knew nothing of being a mom, let alone a student,” she says. “Going into the Jeremiah Program, I was introduced to this community of other moms and the staff, and we built this kind of ‘safe zone’ where we can talk about our frustrations and our difficulties and our day-to-day journey. Building that community, where it is safe to be imperfect and struggling at times, I think that that's the most impactful part of my journey.”

For Kylie, Jeremiah Program not only provided much-needed encouragement for her as a woman, but also as a struggling parent.

“Before I became a participant in Jeremiah program, I did not have a lot of support around me. I spent a lot of time alone. I didn't have any family in the area. … My daughter and I were dealing with Child Protective Services, and she was not home until she was two years old. … That really was the turning point for me: Knowing that these people really do want to help me, and they want our family to succeed. They were able to bring us together by getting me into this program. All these wonderful people—Amy, the family services director, and one of the Empowerment facilitators—they would come with me to family team meetings and court hearings just to show that extra mile of support and say, ‘Hey, we're here for you. We believe in you, and this is where you're meant to be.’ I knew I was meant to be in Jeremiah Program after that.”

Kylie reflects on the skills and confidence she has gained since joining Jeremiah Program.

CONCLUSION

Chastity Lord sees mothers living in poverty as experts of their own experience who are uniquely positioned with the right tools and support to influence transformative change in their homes, communities, and ultimately the world. Jeremiah Program, now in its third decade of implementing the two-generation model, is solidly grounded in the belief that women are strong, capable, and resourceful, and that—by overcoming both personal and structural barriers—they can disrupt the cycle of poverty for themselves and their children.

“It’s a space that allows them to reflect on the woman they are, have been, and desire to become,” she says. “It allows moms to understand their own power and that they are, indeed, experts within their lives. There is no one who has experienced poverty who isn't resilient, who hasn't demonstrated discipline, who hasn't demonstrated deep optimism.”

Jeremiah Program moms have every reason to be optimistic about their futures. One hundred percent of recently surveyed graduates are living in safe housing; 91 percent are employed or continuing their education, and 81 percent of their children are performing at or above grade level.

Alyssa and her kids are well on their way to becoming successful Jeremiah alumni. She has integrated the two-generation model into her career goals as well as her parenting. She’s training to become a science teacher, and she can’t wait to help new generations of young people tap into their potential for success. She’s learned about brain development in her education courses, she says, and it’s made her realize how the stress of her children’s early lives has affected them. But now, she also knows what she needs to do to empower them as they move forward.

“They're happy, and they're not afraid,” she says. “They feel free to speak up and be themselves, and they know at the end of the day they're in a safe bed and there's no worry of, ‘When we're going to eat?’ or fear of the people around us. That's extremely important at such a young age … to tackle those base needs of safety, food, and shelter before you can move on to higher thinking and emotional regulation and things like that. I see that being something that's going to influence all of us in the long run for our success.”

Learn More About a Mother's Journey

The Challenges They Face and Walking the Path to Empowerment