My friend Rebecca has worked in community development in our city for nearly two decades. She knows and loves the children and families that she serves, and her heart breaks for them as she sees the same pattern repeated again and again: low-income mother-headed households with no way out.
The Money: How hard is it? In one neighborhood in our city, the median income is $10,800 per year. Of those households, 92% are headed by a single mother. For a mother with two young children, that is $29.59 per day to pay for everything – food, shelter, clothing, and transportation . . . to say nothing of saving or planning for the future.
The Networks: Tragically, in this community, residents reported knowing only two or three other residents in the community. By contrast, I think my world is probably the inverse. I think there are only two or three families on my block of thirty or so homes that I don’t know.
The Opportunity: These precious families lack opportunity. Many of these mothers have developed amazing persistence and creativity to survive and care for their children. But nothing accrues from their work. They fight just to stay afloat. So what would happen if that extraordinary tenacity was directed to building capacity?
For the past 18 years the Jeremiah Program has been working with the most vulnerable section of society: low-income single mothers with young children. Believing that these families have the capacity to cultivate civic leaders, they have built an incubator model for nurturing those leaders.
Over the past two years, I have helped to establish 2 Gen Cville in order to plant a Jeremiah Program in the city of Charlottesville, Virginia. It is one of the reasons that this blog has been so neglected: my time and energy have been devoted to building a transformative institution.
So, what is it?
The Jeremiah Program is a place – a residential community for low-income single mothers whose children (upon entry) are under age 5. It does for these families what a business incubator does for a start-up: provide space, coaching, encouragement, and a trajectory out of the incubator. The mothers are enrolled in a degree or certificate program that is suited to a field of employment that is in demand, and pays a living wage. While these moms are working hard at their classwork, their young children are loved and taught in the on-site child development center. And in the evenings, there are “empowerment classes” that cultivate parenting skills, financial literacy, and goal setting. Even better, each site has a Life Skills Coach who meets regularly with each mom to help her meet the parenting, financial, educational and vocational goals she has set.
The Secret Sauce
The genius of the model is pulling together four keys in the context of a supportive community:
- Safe and affordable housing
- Career-track education (for mom)
- Early childhood education
- Life Skills
Basically, it hits all the key levers of generational poverty at the same time and over a sustained time (2-4 years) during the most sensitive time of relationship and brain development (early childhood).
Ridge Schuyler, a local leader and founder of Charlottesville Works summarized the situation of poverty in our community: “One third of Charlottesville’s families do not earn enough income to be self-sufficient. The vast majority of these struggling families consist of women and their children. Absent a sustained, methodical and intentional effort, a huge number of these children born into poverty will remain there the rest of their lives.”
This is that sustained, methodical and intentional effort to which I am giving myself.