THOUSANDS OF SINGLE MOTHERS IN SOUTH-EASTERN MINNESOTA RECEIVE SOME TYPE OF GOVERNMENT ASSISTANCE AND STRUGGLE TO PROVIDE THE BASIC NEEDS FOR THEIR CHILDREN. JEREMIAH PROGRAM’S HOLISTIC APPROACH HELPS TRANSFORM TWO GENERATIONS AT A TIME BY PROVIDING EDUCATION, TOOLS AND RESOURCES FOR BOTH MOTHER AND CHILD.
JEREMIAH PROGRAM EXPANDS TO ROCHESTER
Jeremiah Program was founded in Minneapolis in 1993 by Michael J. O’Connell. He gathered leaders in the area from the key sectors of business, education, faith, government and philanthropy to move the vision forward. The program has continued to expand into other cities across the nation.
About five years ago, Paul Fleissner, head of Olmsted County Community Services at the time, learned about Jeremiah Program while listening to CEO Gloria Perez speak in Washington, D.C. Amazed with the program’s mission and two-generation approach, Fleissner arranged a time to meet with Perez in Minneapolis. After meeting with her, he corralled community leaders in Rochester to launch a program.
JOMARIE MORRIS LEADS THE WAY
JoMarie Morris, a Rochester attorney working with the immigrant community and women’s issues, decided her passion was in nonprofit work, and in 2014, she transitioned out of her law practice to pursue a leadership position for an organization aligned with her passion. She met with Fleissner, who is now the Olmsted County director of health, housing and human services, about Jeremiah Program. He encouraged and supported her endeavors to launch a local program.
Morris started as a consultant for Jeremiah Program, and she says, “I assembled an advisory committee including key people in the areas of higher education, early childhood development, philanthropy and faith. We completed a yearlong feasibility study and presented it to the Jeremiah Program National Board.” Because of these efforts, Rochester was approved to launch a campus for 40 families headed by single mothers. In January 2017, they appointed Morris as executive director
of Jeremiah Program Rochester-Southeast Minnesota.
FUNDRAISING FOR THE PROGRAM
“We will be raising money and looking at governmental support to build a campus. The goal is to break ground in the summer of 2019 and have a fully operating campus by the summer of 2020,” Morris says. The campus will be located north of Lourdes High School near the intersection of Valleyhigh Drive and 19th Street, thanks to the generous donation of two acres of land by the Remick family. Mayo Clinic, the Otto Bremer Trust, the Rochester Area Foundation and the Schaap Family Foundation have helped fund the program launch. Support from the Sisters of St. Francis of Rochester and other local organizations has also been critical to the organization’s success.
THE VETTING PROCESS
The young women knocking on Jeremiah Program’s door asking for assistance have had their children at a young age and have little or no family support. The majority of women receive public assistance and have little to no work experience. The children entering Jeremiah Program have frequently experienced significant trauma. Morris says, “Many of them come from abusive homes; 60 percent have seen the abuse of drugs or alcohol in the home. Thirty percent have witnessed or experienced violence, and 5 percent have special needs.”
The program is open to single moms 18 years of age and older and those who are living in poverty but determined to make the leap out of poverty. The women accepted into Jeremiah Program must complete a 16-week empowerment program. Morris says the program is about “cognitive restructuring, responsibility, expectations and teaches self-reliance.” The empowerment program of Jeremiah Program in Rochester begins in the fall of 2018.
For 16 weeks, these strong-willed young women show up and receive training to change their mindset from victim to powerful self. Then they go through a pre-application process. Women must have their GED or high school diploma, are drug tested and need to have selected a career path. Jeremiah Program helps connect the applicants to counseling offices at colleges to help them determine their career trajectory.
After the women have been vetted and accepted into the program, they’re given an opportunity to obtain a two-year or four-year degree program from the college of their choice. Many participants will start at Rochester Community and Technical College to complete general education courses and later move on to other schools to complete a degree program. Since many women subsist in poverty, they qualify for Pell Grants and scholarships so they can graduate with little or no debt.
T.L.C. FROM THE
COMMUNITY AND STAFF
There are five core pillars of the program. Morris explains, “The secret sauce of Jeremiah Program is the community piece.” Rochester community members provide mentorship, volunteer to cook meals, teach weekly life skills and empowerment classes and care for the children while moms are studying. During their studies, women are given safe and affordable housing, on-site early childhood education provided by Families First, life skills and empowerment training, support for a career-track college education as well as one-on-one coaching to deal with daily challenges and opportunities.
“Jeremiah takes away the barriers so they can succeed,” Morris says. Women are also encouraged to volunteer or work part time while working toward their college degree. This provides much needed work experience to prepare them for life after Jeremiah Program. In addition, the moms who live on campus “develop a sisterhood of helping one another and caring for each other as they complete their degrees and move out into the world with successful jobs.”
Christine Smith, Jeremiah Program alumna, says, “The staff is…caring, empathetic and confident in the abilities of each woman. They listened to our concerns and were the ones to give us tissues when we cried. They’re more like aunties than staff.”
BREAKING FREE FROM TRAUMA
Smith, a Native American, participated in the program in the early 2000s in the Twin Cities. She experienced a lot of adverse conditions growing up and later found herself shackled to an unhealthy relationship. Although the relationship was not suitable for her, the couple had two children, and she wanted the best for her kids. During this time, she went to counseling. Her counselor encouraged her to break out of the unhealthy relationship and pursue Jeremiah Program so her children would be exposed to a more positive environment.
Jeremiah Program helped her create a new life starting with a peaceful home environment. “Living on campus was like living in a sanctuary for the first time in my life,” Smith says. This enabled her to focus on her goals. She wanted to break the cycle and be an example for other single moms while creating systems and policies to better understand how trauma affects communities, especially African-American and Native American communities. “Historically there has been a lot of trauma in those communities, and breaking that cycle is vital to moving forward,” Smith explains. The sisterhood that Smith developed with the other women in the program provided invaluable support to complete her college degree and created lifelong friendships.
Smith is now employed at the Minnesota Department of Health in the Office of Statewide Health Improvement Initiatives. She is the health equity and tribal grant supervisor. Her role focuses on healthy eating, active living and tobacco cessation work in communities in Minnesota. She completed her master’s degree in Family Life Education in September 2017.
Smith’s advice to young women trying to break out of the cycle is to, “Learn how to love yourself.” She adds, “It will set the tone for how you care for your children and how your children will feel about themselves.”
If you would like to support Jeremiah Program, please contact JoMarie Morris for more information at 507-208-7675 or JMorris@jeremiahprogram.org.
Nicole L. Czarnomski is a freelance writer in southeastern Minnesota.