News about challenges still facing many working mothers is making headlines, but it’s no surprise to champions of the Twin Cities-based Jeremiah Program.
For 15 years, the nonprofit has transformed more than 600 female-led families with a unique, two-generation approach. Mom gets safe and affordable housing, support for postsecondary education and life-skills training. Her kids benefit from quality early childhood education on-site.
This year’s graduation ceremony, Saturday at Wilder Center in St. Paul, will be especially meaningful, as the children of Jeremiah’s first graduates approach high school graduation themselves — with big plans for their own futures.
“Our oldest children are now applying for college,” said Jeremiah President and CEO Gloria Perez. “That is incredibly gratifying and will be the true measure of our success, as they not only go to college but have economic success that their parents want for them.”
While affordable housing and quality early childhood education are, separately, popular concepts, the idea of marrying the two remains unusual. The approach has earned Perez national respect. She was recently named an Ascend Fellow at the Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit working to ensure that economic security and educational success pass from one generation to the next.
In 2012, 47 percent of Jeremiah’s graduates earned a bachelor’s degree and 53 percent earned an associate degree, “while all enrolled children are succeeding in preschool,” Aspen Institute Vice President Anne Mosle noted in singling out Jeremiah for praise.
The comment is timely as Pew Research Center demographers share findings about working moms at both ends of the financial spectrum. The buzz in late May centered on married mothers who earn more than their husbands. Speculation abounded about whether these marriages, and the respective egos involved, could survive over the long haul.
If you can’t believe this conversation is occurring in 2013, consider a headline from the New York Times: “Breadwinning Wives and Nervous Husbands.”
Still, the bigger story is more troubling. The 37 percent of working moms who are married have a comfortable median family income of $80,000, but the 63 percent of single working moms must survive on a median family income of $23,000. Many mothers in the second group have little education.
Mothers in the program pay on average $135 a month for subsidized housing and can stay as long as they remain in school. After graduating, moms are given a six-month transition period. In addition to their schoolwork, they are offered life-skills training, financial literacy courses and parenting support.
The idea for Jeremiah developed in the early 1990s, when the Rev. Michael J. O’Connell became concerned about the growing number of Minnesota children being born to single mothers in poverty. He challenged leaders in government, corporation and civic life, philanthropy and religion to create a permanent safety net.
“These women had hopes and dreams,” said Perez, who has led the organization through a doubling of the Minneapolis campus, the building of a St. Paul campus and now, national expansion to Austin, Texas, Fargo-Moorhead and, possibly, Boston.
“They knew they should do things differently to be successful, but didn’t know what that looked like.”
Kari LeVan had two questions for the Jeremiah staff when she arrived with her toddler daughter, Marina, 15 years ago: “Is this place for real? And am I good enough to be here?”
Yes and yes.
LeVan, 38, of Plymouth, left an abusive relationship and was living in a tiny, cockroach-infested apartment as she pursued a music career. A friend told her about Jeremiah. She moved in and lived there for about 18 months as she completed an associate degree in studio performance and Marina benefited from quality early learning programs.
After working a variety of jobs for several years, Kari returned to school and graduated in 2011 with a degree in graphic design from Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Twice divorced, she’s now in a healthy relationship, raises horses with Marina and is tickled to work full-time at Jeremiah in development.
“I have everything I want,” said Kari, who still draws on life-skills training from her early days at Jeremiah. She’s proud that Marina, who’s considering careers in psychology, the tattoo industry or working with animals, has learned the same valuable lessons, only sooner. “She really understands that there are resources she can lean on when she needs them.”
Marina’s best resource is sitting next to her. “Watching your mom make mistakes but fix them and learn from them,” said Marina, “taught me to realize how much adults are people, too.”