Pet grooming: how one woman thinks it can help people exit the poverty cycle

Natasha Kirsch, trying to assist those whose past was a barrier to employment, looked for jobs in high demand and that offer good pay. The result of her search is a job training program – The Grooming Project.

David Karas
Natasha Kirsch is offering training in pet grooming because, among other reasons, jobs in the field tend to pay a living wage.

Tanisha Davis remembers the struggles of raising three children without sufficient income or housing.

“I was really just in a financial hardship, not really having a stable place to stay,” Ms. Davis recalls. “I stayed in my car, hotels.”

That all changed in January 2016 when she became part of the first class of The Grooming Project, an intensive, 23-week hands-on training program that readied her for a career in pet grooming – an expanding field that offers higher-than-average hourly wages of $19 an hour, according to the initiative.

Since graduating from the program, not only has Davis earned a living wage for her and her children, but she’s also had a new network of supports at the ready.

The Grooming Project is the principal initiative of Empowering the Parent to Empower the Child – a nonprofit in Kansas City, Mo., that’s dedicated to helping families exit the poverty cycle and become self-reliant.

Behind it all is Natasha Kirsch, EPEC’s founder and executive director. She especially wants to help those whose past has become a barrier to employment: They didn’t finish their education, for example, or they were convicted of a felony. Given the many issues facing such individuals, Ms. Kirsch emphasizes much more than just grooming in The Grooming Project. It’s also about providing much needed guidance in life skills.

Kirsch has witnessed impressive success among the graduates so far. “When they get out of here, they are not getting one job offer – they are getting three,” she says. “And they have never had that before. That is just something that everybody should have.”

The idea behind The Grooming Project began to take shape in 2011, when Kirsch was doing work for several Kansas City nonprofits. She recalls interacting with one mother who had a felony conviction on her record, had dropped out of school, and had several children to support, with no car or job prospects in sight.

Compounding those struggles was the reality that many jobs, even if they offered full-time hours, would not provide a living wage, and certainly not enough money to raise children. “I could see this cycle of life that mom went through,” she says.

She also recounts children sharing stories – of a father committing suicide and a mother being beaten. “Stories that were very normal-sounding for them [were] just not normal-sounding for me,” she says. It was through those experiences that Kirsch realized an effective intervention would have to help the parents, with an eye toward the needs of their children as well.

A need for groomers

To assist these families, she searched for jobs in high demand, and for which employers didn’t preclude applicants because of criminal records or past substance abuse. Her mother, a dog groomer herself, noted the need for groomers at her own company, and Kirsch made the connection.

Leading up to the 2016 launch of The Grooming Project, Kirsch assembled a group of experienced instructors and planned for the program’s internship to take place in the organization’s commercial grooming salon.

Several features have emerged since the launch of The Grooming Project. At the start of a 23-week session, substantial time is spent addressing each student’s most pressing needs – such as how to pay the electric bill or where her children will get their next meal.

“Some of them are completely homeless when we get them,” Kirsch says, pointing out that many are enrolled in services that are disjointed, resulting in gaps and voids. “We try to be that glue that gets all of the organizations to talk to each other.”

During the program, students are paired with mentors, and they receive training and support for parenting, budget management, and other life skills. They’ve exited The Grooming Project in a markedly different place. “It is amazing how smart they get by the end of the program when the fog has cleared,” Kirsch says.

To date, 20 women have graduated, and another four are set to do so in December. The program is also open to men, and the first two fathers should be starting a session this month. Next year, Kirsch expects 25 students, and she hopes to maintain the program’s 100 percent job placement rate among graduates. So far most of the graduates have retained employment, too.

The Grooming Project runs on an annual budget averaging $500,000, with three full-time and two part-time staff members and 65 regular volunteers. Revenue is generated from reduced-rate grooming services (with some 80 percent of clients being low-income pet parents). Other funds have come from grants, contributions, and job training reimbursements offered through a federal program.

Room for growth

Kirsch sees room for growth. She plans to open a second school in Kansas City, Kan., in 2019, and aims to have a presence in 10 states within a decade.

The students she works with provide all the motivation to keep the organization moving and growing.

“They have been treated so poorly their entire lives that there is no dignity, there is no self-worth,” she says. “Unfortunately in our society that is attached to money, to have self-worth you need to be able to financially take care of yourself, and you need a skill that no one can take away from you.”

The grooming industry’s general acceptance of those with criminal records and limited educational backgrounds made it an appealing candidate for Kirsch’s endeavor.

“I’ve got some students that cannot read, but in the grooming field that is OK,” she says. “Most of them have a felony on their record.... But the dogs don’t care that they went to prison.”

Kirsch’s model has resonated with Bill Worley, a retired veterinarian and a member of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Mo. He especially notes The Grooming Project’s mission to help women dealing with poverty and in some cases a criminal past.

“Unless they have a skill that is really in demand, it is very difficult to eliminate this cycle of poverty,” Mr. Worley says. “This program offered a way out.”

He recalls being moved by the women’s stories when he attended their graduation in June 2016.

“These women hadn’t been celebrated for anything ever, or certainly in the last 20 years,” he says. “It was heartwarming to see them there and to hear their stories.”

‘The potential is limitless’

Scott Helm, associate director of the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, was one of Kirsch’s professors while she was pursuing her Executive Master of Public Administration degree. It was through that program that she developed the initial plan for The Grooming Project.

“A lot of organizations seek to work with people who are in poverty, but it is very challenging to actually help [people] make the kind of changes ... necessary to stay out of poverty,” Mr. Helm says. “I think [The Grooming Project’s] impact has been tremendous from the perspective of designing a model that can actually lift people out of poverty through the hard work of the people. And while the numbers are small because they have only been around for a couple of years, I think the potential is limitless.”

Davis, the mother of three children, says it’s easy to see Kirsch as a role model. “She gave me a reason to believe that you’re never too old to learn,” Davis says. The skills that Kirsch helped to teach her, including communication, continue to serve her well in her full-time job at a grooming salon.

She sees The Grooming Project as a source of empowerment for mothers and other women. “It gave us something to look forward to when we felt like all hope was gone,” she says. “It just gave us something to look forward to – like we have a second chance at life.”

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How to take action

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups providing resources that enable growth by individuals and communities:

Helen Keller International aids vulnerable people by combating blindness, poor health, and malnutrition. Take action: Donate money to empower women through gardening.

Supporting Kids in Peru helps disadvantaged youths realize their right to an education. Take action: Become an economic development project officer for this organization.

Rural Communities Empowerment Center provides resources and services to improve levels of literacy in Ghana. Take action: Contribute to funds for community resource centers overseen by this group.

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