Interview with Jo Marie on
JoMarie Morris is the executive director of Jeremiah Program’s Rochester-Southeast Minnesota campus, Jeremiah Program’s newest campus; programming began 18 months ago, and the residential campus is scheduled to open its doors to 40 families at the end of summer 2020.
How did you come to learn about COVID-19, and when did you understand it was going to have such a major effect on Jeremiah Program?
I came to learn about it because I’m on the Community Services Advisory Committee for Olmsted County where Rochester is situated. One of the leaders on that committee is the Director of County Public Health, and pretty early on we received a short briefing about: This is out here. So, I had a little bit of groundwork, but there was nothing from that first discussion with our Director of Public Health here that would have led me to believe we would be where we are today. I don’t think that any of us knew or thought that we would be in the situation we are today.
What were some of your biggest concerns for Jeremiah Program families when things got really serious?
One of the primary concerns is trying to keep families stable until we can open up this campus so they have a safe place to live. We’re desperate, like many parts of the country, for safe, affordable housing; many of our families are in vulnerable housing situations. So, the first thing for me was: “Are we going to be able to still open the campus this summer? What can we do to make sure that our families are going to be safe until that happens?”
Remarkably, it’s still pretty on schedule to open later this summer. It’ll be probably a few weeks later than we were [planning], but again, it’s a day-by-day situation.
We’ve had a little bit of an issue regarding getting supply materials for the campus. Warehouses are shut down across the country. So, we’re doing a lot of shifting and pivoting as we try to move things forward as quickly as we can. The project managers are honest with me that if someone on site is tested positive for COVID that the site will immediately be shut down.
What were some of your biggest concerns for Jeremiah Program staff?
My staff has been amazing. They have risen to the occasion. They found ways to provide more support and guidance for our families, finding creative ways to do it and really working beyond their job descriptions to make sure our families are safe. I couldn’t be more proud to work with my team and the teams across the country. Everybody’s really come together to make that happen.
I very much worry about my staff. Most of them are working remotely, but again, they’re doing as much as they can to reach out to our families and making sure they are getting what they need as far as food and immediate resources for their children, support when they’ve lost their jobs.
Chastity and the teams together have created these task forces around resources for families [that] have been really crucial to keeping our families stable. We’re all working really, really hard and committed to our families, but also giving each other grace to take care of ourselves and our families, too, which is a hard thing to do.
How has your job specifically changed?
A lot of work with the [virtual programming] task force and more robust communication with my team, so that we can pivot and be even more fluid than we have been in the past. Just to make sure that everybody’s going to be safe—both that staff’s needs are taken care of and our families’. That has changed. I’m a little bit more focused on immediate needs and shorter blocks of planning. What do we immediately need to do, but how does that relate to how we continue to grow our program and move our organization forward at the same time? I’m really proud of how the leadership team has, in a time of crisis, taken the vision of the organization and launched initiatives that will make our organization much stronger in the future.
What are some examples of resilience you have witnessed, either in the families that you support or with your staff?
Because we don’t have our campus open yet, we don’t have what’s called a Resident Council, but we have a Participant’s Council. So, all those women who’ve completed Empowerment, and been accepted into the program and getting ready to move onto the campus, they form a Participant Council where they establish their own leadership. They do their own elections. We teach them a summary of Robert’s Rules [of Engagement] and get them comfortable forming that organization and becoming a voice for themselves as a partner with us to move our programming—and what we’re doing with Jeremiah—forward.
We just started this last fall, and the women in our program already have really run with it. They have done amazing things as a Participant Council. When we had the situation with COVID and we weren’t going to be able to have Life Skills classes (we have this Participant Council scheduled in with our Life Skills classes), immediately they said, “No, we want to do it anyway, and we want to find a way to do it virtually because we want to make sure we’re able to support one another and continue to partner with JP staff as we’re getting ready to move on the campus.”
And, so, they did. Every single one of those participants found a way to engage virtually. Every single one of them was on the call and talked about how they could support one another, what their concerns were, how they could express their concerns to the staff, and work with us in growing the program. It was incredible for me to hear that. It was really early on, too; I would say that was in the first two weeks or so of us starting to do virtual coaching and engaging with our participants virtually. It just shows that whole empowerment piece: “We built a sisterhood. We’re going to support one another. We’re going to be a partner with Jeremiah staff in our programming and our goals.” I just loved that.
How do you think things will be different at Jeremiah Program after this pandemic?
I think it’s really going to provide an opportunity for our coaches to develop and align even more our protocols for virtual coaching and shared resources and best practices. And I really think that’s going to be a springboard, or a strong foundation, for growth, for serving our families with enhanced coaching platforms—different, various coaching platforms that are going to have more versatility and ultimately strengthen our coaching structure and philosophy. I also think it will improve our ability to be more fluid and have more robust program evaluation. I think there are a lot of opportunities we can glean from this time, as difficult and as stressful as it has been.
I’m a Minnesota farm girl who grew up in a rural area. The other opportunity that I see: I think this will lead us to more opportunity for serving more families, especially those families that are in rural areas and don’t have the access that some people are fortunate to have.
What do you want people to know about how this pandemic is affecting single mothers in poverty?
Our program participants are among the most vulnerable to start with; adding the pandemic on top of that makes them even more vulnerable to things like homelessness, domestic abuse, a multitude of other things. They’re already living on the edge and making it day by day.
The other thing that I’ve learned in working with our program participants is the majority of them are very isolated. They just don’t have a lot of community and family support, and that is one of the key pillars for Jeremiah: providing that community and wrapping of them up in both the sisterhood and the support from the teams and the larger community. I’ve really seen that that’s made all the difference in the world for our families. We have to be vigilant in continuing to provide that community and doing it in different ways during this pandemic, so the women aren’t continuing in isolation and the significant mental health vulnerabilities that come with that.