Growing up as a Latina in South Texas, I spent a great deal of time with my extended family. My grandparents and parents worked diligently to create a foundation of success rooted in hard work, education, and self-respect—a foundation that paved the way for me to get where I am today.
Today, I have the privilege of working with single mothers and their children at Jeremiah Program, a nationally recognized nonprofit organization with a proven, holistic approach that transforms young families from poverty to prosperity, two generations at a time. Jeremiah works to give young women the same kind of foundation I got.
Jeremiah provides safe and affordable housing, quality on-site early childhood education, life skills and empowerment training, and support for career-track education. Jeremiah’s goal is to help single mothers—who must be enrolled in higher-education classes—graduate with postsecondary degrees, with livable-wage jobs and strong parenting skills, all while preparing their children for their own school success. The average stay in residency is two years.
A 2013 independent study by Wilder Research of St. Paul, Minnesota, found that every dollar invested by Jeremiah in these families can return up to $4 to society at large by reducing their dependence on public assistance and increasing the productivity and economic prosperity of mothers and children down the road.1
Most of the young women who come to Jeremiah have lives marked by personal and economic instability. Although they struggle to adjust when they arrive, I remain amazed by their resourcefulness, resiliency, and determination.
A vital ingredient in our approach is the requirement that participants complete 16 weeks of empowerment training before being admitted to the program. This training helps them understand and embrace the concept that they have the power to control their own destiny. Then, as residents of the program, women are required to attend weekly life-skills sessions focused on career development, financial and physical health, parenting and child development, and healthy relationships. Supported by a group of caring volunteers and staff, Jeremiah women develop a strong sense of self and then cultivate an attitude of possibility within their children. Women in the program often tell me that they wish they had received life skills and empowerment education when they were younger.
Take Tamara.2 As a 17-year-old with a new baby, she lived in a two-bedroom apartment with her mother and three younger siblings. When her mother’s boyfriend moved into the apartment, Tamara was asked to leave. Rejected and homeless, Tamara and her baby started to couch-hop and, not surprisingly, her grades began to suffer. Through the intervention of a guidance counselor, Tamara was encouraged to apply to community college. That’s when she heard about Jeremiah. This motivated woman enrolled in our personal empowerment classes, and over the next two years, developed a tremendous amount of courage and strength as she pursued her dream of becoming a social worker. There were many times when she would drop by my office, exhausted and doubtful about her abilities and in need of validation and encouragement that she was worthy of success and that her mistakes did not define her. Tamara recently graduated, well on her way to a stable life with her young child, who is doing beautifully in school. Two lives transformed.
At Jeremiah, we know the growth process begins with the development of trusting relationships. By having these young women dig deep and examine their own thoughts and beliefs, educators and mentors can understand what they believe and why. How were their negative ideas about themselves formed? What possibilities would a new belief system open up for them? Starting at the center of the person—with a young woman’s spirit and her sense of self—begins the change. We call it “work from the inside out.” It is indeed work, but it is truly transformative.
I have the distinct privilege and pleasure twice a year of watching the young women in our program graduate and move out into the world as independent, confident parents, employees, and community leaders. But nothing gives me greater hope than watching their children adopt a strong sense of self and a belief that they can do and be anything they want. That’s the strong foundation that Jeremiah provides.
This essay was written exclusively for The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, in partnership with the Center for American Progress. Download the full report here for FREE from January 12th – January 15th.
1. Jeremiah Program, “Wilder Research Calculates Jeremiah’s Return on Investment,” September 16, 2013, available at http://www.jeremiahprogram.org/2013/09/wilder-research-calculates-jeremiahs-return-on-investment/.
2. Tamara is not the subject’s real name. It has been changed to protect her privacy.