A helping hand for young mothers in poverty

New Moms in Chicago provides job training, transitional housing, and doula support. The aim is for the new mothers to become self-sufficient.

Courtesy of New Moms
A New Moms participant holds a just-made candle – part of the organization’s efforts to give young mothers job training.

The Chicago neighborhood of Austin, in the northwestern part of the city, bears all the signs of poverty – rusted cars, barred windows, and pothole-filled streets. Litter is scattered on the sidewalks, and unkempt lawns skirt half-collapsed houses. In short, it’s a rough neighborhood.

But walking into the building for the nonprofit New Moms is like entering an oasis. The interior is polished and modern, and the thick walls make it surprisingly quiet. A woman walks out of a room labeled “laundry,” a toddler trotting happily behind her. At the center of the building is a courtyard, cloistered from the rest of the world with a table for picnics, a small slide, and other play equipment for young children.

Laura Zumdahl is the president and chief executive officer of New Moms, which provides job training, transitional housing, and doula support for poverty-stricken pregnant women and new mothers. She recalls one meeting with donors and volunteers in this very courtyard during which the group heard gunshots down the block. For her, the incident was proof that New Moms is in the right place.

“This is where we need to be, because this is where the need is,” Ms. Zumdahl says. “And this is where the young women we’re serving are: This is their community; this is where their homes are. And we need to be in the middle of that.”

Many of the women who seek help here are homeless, finding themselves in the impossible position of having to care for young children without the most basic tools, training, and financial safety nets to survive on their own. They come from across the poor areas of Chicago, especially impoverished neighborhoods on the city’s South Side.

Zumdahl explains what New Moms is designed to do: “Homeless young moms, often we see they’ve grown up homeless, and now they have children, and it’s a cycle that’s repeating itself – and it’s really difficult to break out of that without some sort of targeted intervention and support. That’s what New Moms does.”

The founder of New Moms, Ellen Kogstad Thompson, started distributing diapers and baby formula to homeless young mothers from the back of her own car 34 years ago. But as Ms. Thompson helped provide necessities for these families, she soon realized that the problem couldn’t be solved with diapers and formula alone.

“There really weren’t a lot of services ... focused on young families, especially in 1983,” Zumdahl says. “There weren’t places to send them to live; there weren’t places for job training.”

Thompson and some like-minded individuals pooled their resources to buy apartments for many of these families, and they expanded into job training programs to help thousands of women. Eventually, the facility in Austin was built, following a westward shift of poverty in the city.

Zumdahl cracks open a door at the end of a hallway. Inside is a classroom, complete with whiteboards, desks, and open notebooks. Young women take notes as one of them reads an assignment aloud, with a teacher looking on. Here is where valuable skills are learned for the professional world – such as how to find a job and how to answer questions in an interview.

“The job training program helped me grow in my interviewing skills,” says Olivia Edwards, a 24-year-old alumna of New Moms. “It helped me become more confident and learn to use what I thought was negative and see the positives.”

Ms. Edwards was homeless prior to receiving help from New Moms, spending three months of her pregnancy in a shelter. After the birth of her daughter, Giselle, she received stable housing and job training from New Moms. But she soon realized that housing was only a first step: She had to become an independent self-sufficient mother.

“I didn’t want to get comfortable,” says Edwards, who made her comments in an email interview. “I had to move to the next step.”

Women like Edwards are with New Moms an average of between 1-1/2 and two years. Some will simply make visits, but others will spend time in transitional housing within the facility itself, in one of 40 fully furnished apartments. Each living space is small but private, with an electronic lock, stove, refrigerator, and a tub and shower – things that some residents have not had access to before.

Most of the necessities of life are provided by New Moms, but there’s enough independence to prepare families for the real world once they leave the program. Right now, every apartment is full – and there’s a considerable waiting list.

“We need more housing. That’s a big need [especially for young families],” Zumdahl says. “It just doesn’t exist in other places in the city.”

On the ground level of the building, a mound of just-donated diapers and other necessities, almost reaching the ceiling, is getting attention from volunteers. This kind of generosity is necessary for New Moms to continue functioning, Zumdahl says – but the nonprofit is also looking at ways to become just as self-sufficient as the young women who graduate from the program.

“We know that we have a model that works really well. We’re above and beyond where national benchmarks are on outcomes for job training,” she says. “But to do that, we need to grow our program.”

Bright Endeavors is the first step in that process: a scented candle company that New Moms acquired a few years ago to provide on-the-job training and résumé material for many of these women. The proceeds from Bright Endeavors are now covering almost 10 percent of the nonprofit’s annual expenses.

Between the candle sales, charitable donations, and volunteer support, the future is looking bright at New Moms.

“I want to be a loving, understanding type of mother and to be the best that I can be,” says Edwards. “[My daughter] will benefit because I benefited from being at New Moms.”

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