A promotion in the airline industry brought Brittany Block to Minnesota. At about the same time, she found out she was pregnant.
She continued to work while she was expecting, then as a new mom — all the while in a turbulent relationship with her partner. But by the time her son, Grayson, had reached 18 months, she agreed to go on furlough to make things work at home.
The very next day, she says, she found out her partner had another girlfriend. “So, literally, within 24 hours I quit my job and was homeless,” Block said. “I moved to the Twin Cities for my job, so I had no family support here.”
In that moment, she turned to Google, searching for any resources for single moms, for adults looking to go back to college, for affordable housing. That’s when she came across the Jeremiah Program — an organization that supports low-income, single, working mothers in pursuit of career advancement through higher education.
“It seemed too good to be true. It was everything that I was needing,” Block said, adding she initially disregarded it, assuming it was some sort of scam.
Shortly after, a friend of hers had dinner with a fundraiser for the Jeremiah Program — and got all the confirmation she needed to apply.
That summer, she and her son moved into an apartment on the program’s St. Paul campus, where he received a quality early childhood education at the on-site day care center while she recalibrated and fast-tracked her way to a bachelor’s degree in two years.
“They are so much there, like a parent would be there for their kid in college. All of those little unforeseen, goofy little things that happen in life — like you run out of toilet paper early because your 2-year-old pulled it all off the roll,” Block said. “They’re just there to be supportive. They’ve never solved the problems for me, but kept me on track, encouraging, and doing what they could to remove unnecessary barriers so I could focus.”
Since the first Jeremiah campus was built in Minneapolis in 1998 — across the street from Minneapolis Community and Technical College, where many participants take classes — the program has served more than 3,600 low-income single mothers and their children. It expanded to include a St. Paul campus in 2007; and the groundbreaking for its latest expansion, in Rochester, is scheduled to take place next week.
The program has also taken root in Texas, North Dakota, Massachusetts and New York. It’s recognized as a national leader in disrupting intergenerational poverty by supporting both mother and child simultaneously.
This mission resonates with Chastity Lord, the program’s incoming president and CEO, slated to take over in September.
“Education was the lever that disrupted my own family’s cycle of generational poverty,” Lord said in a press release. “Because of its successful model, Jeremiah is in a unique position to frame a national conversation about the investments required to disrupt cycles of generational poverty, while simultaneously illuminating what systems and structures lead to it.”
Establishing a solid foundation
To qualify for the Jeremiah program, applicants must be low-income and at least 18 years old, with children under the age of 8. They also have to be willing to take on even more responsibilities.
In addition to taking classes in a four-year accredited college program, they must also continue to work in some capacity — whether full time, part time, or through an internship — and commit to a slate of empowerment and life skills training sessions.
It’s a lot to tackle all at once. But Jeremiah staff help create the conditions for these solo mothers, and their children, to succeed.
On the front end, the program matches all mothers with safe and affordable housing. On all Minnesota campuses, that means placing them in an apartment building occupied by all program participants and staff. No mother pays more than 30 percent of her income toward rent. On average, families stay on campus for three years, says La Juana Whitmore, executive director of the Twin Cities campuses.
In addition, all moms are guaranteed access to on-site child care, equipped with a quality early childhood education program that fully prepares over 90 percent of all children for pre-K. The benefits of this resource often extend further than the classroom.
For instance, having survived a rather traumatic childhood herself, Block, 35, says she had never planned on becoming a parent. But staff who helped look after her son were always willing to answer her parenting questions and offer support — everything from providing potty training tips to printing off nursery rhymes when she told them she didn’t know any.
“I always get emotional because I think back to what it would have been like without all these tiny things,” she said, choking up. “And it’s something so simple, but it just speaks to the community of Jeremiah, in that that’s not in her job description to do that, but the culture there encourages that kind of stuff. You do that one extra thing to show up for somebody, so that they can focus on this hard work the moms are trying to do, which is focus on getting through college so that they can change their families’ lives.”
Many mothers also lean on each other, for a sense of solidarity and support — a sisterhood made even more convenient by the proximity of living in the same building and the shared experience of raising children while studying and working.
Reflecting on her time on the Minneapolis campus with her daughter, Yasmin, Ethelind Kaba, 39, says she was working in the customer service department for the Star Tribune and taking classes in the afternoon and evening — a schedule that sometimes kept her away until 9 p.m. Her neighbors banded together, offering to help watch her daughter in the early morning and late evening hours, when the day care center was closed.
“More than that, you became friends, bonded over things, really laughed over things,” she said. “Long after I left the program, some remain my dearest friends. My daughter just graduated this year from high school and some were at the graduation brunch.”
Two key levers of change
Prior to Block enrolling at Inver Hills Community College, Jeremiah staff helped Block sort out student loans in default that she had acquired from the first time she attempted college.
With that issue addressed, she was able to apply for federal aid to make her second go at college more affordable. Also, her life skills coach connected her with a program on campus designed to expedite degree completion for those coming to college from the workforce.
This allowed her to essentially petition how her work experiences — in the airline industry and salon management — satisfied similar course requirements to get credit for those experiences at a greatly reduced cost.
She transferred to St. Mary’s University to complete her business degree, taking advantage of shorter, evening classes that catered to working adult students. In the span of just two years, she was able to complete her four-year degree, move out of Jeremiah housing and land a job working at a hair salon in Woodbury.
She’s now entering her fifth year at the salon, which she co-manages with her best friend. “Doing hair was always my first passion,” she says. “But I also get the luxury of picking my son up from school, when it’s my night to have him.”
That’s the sort of trajectory the Jeremiah Program seeks to support — career advancement through higher education. On average, Whitmore says, 20 families graduate from the Twin Cities campuses each year — that’s moms who have completed their education and have moved out into the community within six months.
In an emerging partnership with Dunwoody College of Technology, Whitmore says Jeremiah staff are currently looking to help create new pipelines for the mothers they serve to consider, and enroll in, technology-based careers that are typically male-dominated and higher-paying. Lots of program participants currently go into fields like nursing and dental.
“There’s a gap in understanding there are other avenues out there,” she said. “If we can get single moms to understand, touch and feel equipment and talk with other women in those jobs, they may make a different decision.”
Prior to even moving onto campus, program participants are required to reflect and sharpen their vision for their family’s future. The bulk of this work takes place during a mandatory 16-week empowerment program, where Jeremiah staff coach incoming mothers to think and act from a place of power.
“It’s a lot of juggling balls and it’s easy, when you’re stressed, to not act and come from a place of power,” Whitmore said. “It’s what we call a cognitive restructuring — just getting to a place where they’re able to handle it all.”
From there, each mother gets assigned to a coach, who routinely checks in with them to ensure they’re on track with everything from applying for food stamps to accessing mental health resources.
They’re also expected to attend bi-weekly life skills classes throughout the duration of their stay in the program, where volunteers come to talk about things like parenting, financial independence, health and wellness and more.
Kaba, an alumna who moved on campus in 2002, credits a life skills speaker for rebuilding her self-esteem. She’d moved here from Ghana, struggling to remap her life after an unplanned pregnancy. While taking some classes at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, she heard about the Jeremiah Program from a classmate.
“The empowerment piece, for me — which I didn’t think I needed — I found actually helped me the greatest,” she said. “I’m very driven by nature. So to find I’m not going to an Ivy League school like I thought, there was sort of shame around that.”
The simple message that spoke to her involved a speaker holding up a $20 bill, reminding everyone that whether it gets wrinkled or stepped on, its value remains the same — as does a person’s value, no matter what they’ve gone through.
“I broke down and sobbed like a baby,” Kaba said, tearing up once more. “I really needed to hear that. Seems like a very simple thing. But I needed to hear that.”
Today, she works at a prominent law firm in downtown Minneapolis, handling marketing and communications. She’s married, with two more children. And she’s serving on the Jeremiah Program’s national board.
“Because I believe in the program so much, I never truly stayed away,” she said, noting she continues to visit campus to catch up with staff members and volunteers to do things like babysit for moms “especially during finals week, because those are the things I found useful.”