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For Good: Women helping women buck poverty

Dr. Chamain Moss-Torres is Program Director for The Children’s Home Network in Tampa.

Stacey Leo is a Lead Case Worker for the SEEDS Program.

Claudia Gunns with Metropolitan Ministries, left, and Latisha Lomax.

Nancy Friedman is Program Director for Woman to Woman.


Negative labels can breed negativity, but that’s not always so. Janie McGrew knows that firsthand. After McGrew became pregnant at 15, she was taunted with the label “high school dropout.” Instead of discouraging her, it encouraged her.

“It hurt so much because it was true, and I didn’t want it to be,” she recalls.

When she got the chance, McGrew returned to school at night, eventually graduating from Gibbs Evening High School in St. Petersburg. She later trained as a licensed practical nurse, graduating with the designation “honor student.” Then she kept on learning, even on the job as an LPN on the orthopedic floor at St. Anthony’s Hospital.

“I always had an opportunity to work with nurses who had confidence in me, They would show me things,” she says.

Eventually she earned a master’s degree as a nurse practitioner. Now retired from her job as nurse manager for the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System, she runs her own business as a life coach, The Joy Whisperer, in St. Petersburg. She also volunteers in Hillsborough County’s Woman to Woman program helping other teen moms.

“Everybody around you can be saying ‘you can’t, you can’t.’ But inside of you, inside of each of us, there is something that says ‘I am. I can. I will.’ That’s what I try to share with girls now,” she explains.

McGrew teaches the girls that good can come out of everything. “As I just look back across my own life, what I see is that there is good in every situation, no matter how bad it appears or seems to be,” the 60-year-old says.

Her story is an encouragement at a time when many women remain in poverty. Florida women are less likely to hold a bachelor’s degree than men, according to a recently released report, The Status of Women in Florida by County: Poverty and Opportunity, The report, commissioned by Florida’s Women’s Funding Alliance, an affinity group of Florida Philanthropic Network, shows 26.7 percent of women and 28.1 percent of men have a bachelor’s degree.

Florida fares poorly in the report, earning a D+ and ranking 33 out of 50 on the Poverty and Opportunity Composite Index.  The report notes poverty continues to be a problem, with 15.4 percent of women 18 and older living in it. A major cause is “a gender pay gap,” it suggests.

“If working women in Florida aged 18 and older were paid the same as comparable men -- men who are of the same age, have the same level of education, work the same number of hours, and have the same urban/rural status -- the poverty rate among all working women would fall by 57.3 percent, from 8.2 percent to 3.5 percent,” the report says.

Working single mothers would benefit even more. “The poverty rate among working single mothers in Florida would drop from more than one in five single mothers in poverty (23.1 percent) to fewer than one in 10 (9.5 percent),” it notes.

The good news is that McGrew and others are working to improve things.

Woman to Woman

The Woman to Woman program run by Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services helps teen mothers like 17-year-old Ezra Frazier, who is raising her 3-year-old son while attending Simmons Career Center in Plant City. She plans to attend Hillsborough County Community College in Brandon next year to prepare for her career as a daycare center owner.

Frazier, who is living with a friend in Brandon, hasn’t been close to her family. So the Woman to Woman program has given her a second chance for family-like ties. “It’s helped me a lot,” she says.

Frazier didn’t used to relate well to other women. “I felt like females always had drama,” Frazier says.

In the program, she learned the other girls were pretty much like her. She’s become a peer mentor helping the others. “It’s pretty relaxing when you’re helping other teens,” she says. 

Funded by the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, the Woman to Woman program helps pregnant teens and teen moms, aged 15 and up, with one child. A main objective is keeping the girls in school. “They have to want to graduate high school. They have to be willing to delay additional birth until they do. They have to have goals,” explains Nancy Friedman, Program Director of Woman to Woman. 
 
The organization helps the vulnerable in society, inspired by Jewish values. Referrals come through the school system. 

About 75 percent are “financially dependent,” she says. “Typically they come from poor homes. All the pieces are in play to keep them there,” she adds.

The program, which helps at least 84 women and their babies annually, works to break the poverty cycle. “By the time they leave our program they no longer just want to graduate high school,” she says. 

Instead, they usually go to college and beyond.

Though teen pregnancy can set the stage for poverty, Woman to Woman mentors like McGrew are proof that doesn’t need to happen. “Many of our mentors come to us because they were teen moms themselves -- and now they are successful women,” she says. 

The message Woman to Woman sends is clear. “Our message to our girls is education, education, education. We don’t really want them to go into a minimum wage job and stay there,” she explains.

Metropolitan Ministries

Education wasn’t the real problem for Latisha Lomax. A domestic violence victim, she had to run from her home. She ended up at Metropolitan Ministries’ Hope Hall, where she went through classes and learned to overcome mental and emotional barriers. “I have made major changes,” she says. “The first thing I noticed … I was extremely codependent.”

After working her way through the Uplift U program, she’s learned she can “be a great caregiver without being a codependent,” she says.

Lomax used to look to others to build her self-esteem, but she has learned to look to herself for validation. “Nobody knows me more than me,” she says.

The 45-year-old has finally found the love she was looking for. “Sometimes I leave for work and I miss it,” she says of her home on campus. “It’s like family, it really is.”

Lomax has graduated from the program and is working as a hospital inventory specialist. By the end of the year, she is planning to take a medical billing and coding test to become certified. “I am excited,” she says. “I would like to leave here buying my house.”

Metropolitan Ministries, a local nonprofit, non-denominational, faith-based group, assists clients who come from all over the United States. Its mission is to provide care for the poor and homeless. It sheltered 461 families in 2016, and helped 319 adults attain or maintain education goals.

Metropolitan Ministries provides help “as long as they [clients] have the documentation that they can work in the U.S.,” says Claudia Gunns, Director of Housing and Employment Services for the ministry. “Otherwise we refer them to others in the community that can help them.”

Clients without a high school diploma can attend the General Educational Development program at the ministry’s campus on Florida Avenue. Others have criminal backgrounds. “We reach out to different businesses in the community. We talk about the barriers that the clients have and they work for us,” Gunns says.

Through partnering with CareerSource Tampa Bay they are working to overcome the challenges. Some employers are accommodating -- as long as potential employees are honest about it, she says.

“It’s something that’s ongoing, especially when you’re also dealing with someone who doesn’t have a high education level,” Gunns says.

Still others face a language barrier, speaking only Spanish. That hurdle is dealt with through Spanish-speaking housing and employment specialists and a case manager.

The ministry impacts the community through outreach and preventive services, shelter, employment assistance, donated goods and services, and children’s programs.

The SEEDS program
 
Problems can begin early, and The SEEDS program tries to address them before a child enters school. “Our primary goal is to ensure that the children between birth to three years old develop on track,” says Chamain Moss-Torres, Program Director for The Children’s Home Network in Tampa.  

SEEDS, a program of The Children’s Home Network, helps children age 3 through third grade, with a “no ask, no tell policy” for undocumented residents. “As long as they are Hillsborough County residents, we can serve them,” she says. “We help support all the activities around getting the citizenship.”

Their mission includes assisting each family on an individual basis, which might mean short-term help with rent payments or helping them create goals and achieving them. “A lot of families, when we talk about goals, they really have not had experience with setting up a timetable or a budget,” Moss-Torres says.

In short, program personnel do whatever it takes, including referring people to educational or career services so they can find jobs. 

“I have also helped out parents with a resume. I have actually printed out different jobs that meet the criteria of what they’re looking for and they’re eligible [for],” says Stacey Leo, Family Support Coordinator 4 and Lead Case Worker for the Children’s Home Network's SEEDS Program. “I try to do whatever the family needs in order to be successful.”

Most of the children and families helped are referred through the schools.

SEEDS assists more than 1,000 families annually on a program budget of $2.5 million, plus an additional $200,000 for administrative services. Twenty-four family support coordinators cover Hillsborough County. “We continue to have more families than we are able to serve in any given year,” Moss-Torres says. “We do our best.” 

Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is an editor and feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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