About two years ago, Khalena McIntyre, a single mother of two young boys, didn’t have a job or a car. She was barely getting by on government assistance and with help from her family.

"Things were very dark for me," she said. "I didn’t see how I was going to make a way out of these things. I felt very depressed. It’s physical. It’s mental. It’s financial. It’s everything in one."

McIntyre knew she had to provide a stable, happy and safe environment for her two boys.

It’s imperative in a city like Birmingham where young men are falling prey to drugs and violence. "Honestly that’s our No. 1 problem, she said.

Pictured from left: Christine McLain, career counselor at Jefferson State Community College; Khalena McIntyre, program participant; Mary Jane Gibson, coordinator of career and volunteer programs at YWCA of Central Alabama; and Kay Cochran Potter, director of workforce education at Jeff State. (Erin Edgemon/eedgemon@al.com)

"I can’t count the number of friends, classmates and family members, male and female, that I have lost to violence and crime," she said, "and that still continues to happen."

McIntyre got her chance to improve the life of her family through a collaboration between Jefferson State Community College and JCCEO Head Start. The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham provided grant money to make the program possible.

The Women’s Fund is a non-profit that supports programs to improve women’s economic security and help end the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

McIntyre attended about 5 months of classes that prepared her to become a certified pharmacy technician. She took classes while her two boys were in school – the youngest attending Head Start in the same building.

A career counselor, whose salary is paid for through the Women’s Fund grant, also helped make sure McIntyre and the other women in the program, stayed on track. This included providing a stipend for transportation, connecting them with social services and just listening.

In Alabama, half of all single mothers live in poverty, according to data collected by The Women’s Fund. That’s the third highest rate in the country.

A living wage for a single woman with two children in Birmingham is about $50,000, according to The Women’s Fund. The median wage for single mothers in Birmingham, though, is about $27,000.

Getting out of poverty isn’t easy. Women face many barriers including the lack of living wage jobs, access to post-secondary education and affordable child care and transportation.

"You have this gap of women who can’t afford quality child care in order to go to school or work," said Mary Page Wilson-Lyons, director of strategic initiatives for The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham. "Now you have a generation of children who may not be growing up with the type of developmental skills, educational skills that are so crucial in early years."

The Women’s Fund has provided grants for collaborative programs, like the one at Jeff State, for a number of years. Now, they are taking it a step further.

More needs to be done to remove the barriers that keep single women and their children in poverty, Wilson-Lyons said.

By 2020, the non-profit is hoping to provide the seed money to launch five one-stop family hubs where single mothers can access services they need for both themselves and their children. This model would allow multiple non-profits to come together and do what they do best.

"There are many great people doing great things in Birmingham," Wilson-Lyons said. "There’s not a very good continuum of care. As we talked to mothers who are currently experiencing poverty, they would say things like, ‘It is absolutely exhausting. I have to take an entire week off work in order to try to access all of the different systems and benefits I need to get through.’

Hubs could be physical locations where multiple services could be offered, or they could be a virtual coordination of services for organizations that serve mothers and their children.

Three ideas

The Women’s Fund is starting the effort this year with the Collaboration Institute 3.0, which kicked off on Thursday. The event brought together local agencies, including community colleges, child care centers, public and private job training initiatives and social services, to learn more about the concept of family hubs and hear ideas from existing collaborative efforts in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Maryland.

Thursday’s event also allowed non-profits to network and start looking at how they could work together. The 18-month program then becomes a competition between these newly formed teams.

The three teams with the best ideas are awarded $100,000 in seed money from The Women’s Fund. These teams will also receive support, including coaching, peer-learning workshops and technical assistance to get their idea off the ground.

Wilson-Lyons said each team is then required to contribute $50,000 in grant funding or in-kind services to the program.

"My hope is that by December 2018, we will have three pretty incredible ideas to really sustain and better work with families in our area that are experiencing chronic and generational poverty," she said.

One of the best ideas shared on Thursday, according to attendees, came from the Los Angeles Valley College Family Resource Center.

Amber Angel, from the center, said she started community college as a parent of two children. She realized there were no services on campus to help her as a student-parent.

She wasn’t alone as she quickly learned about 30 percent of her classmate were parents.

Angel partnered with a child development professor to create the Family Resource Center.

The center provides low-cost child care while students attend classes. Infants and toddlers can attend a couple hour play sessions staffed by child development students while their parents are in class. The center also offers a baby clothing exchange, lactation room, parent-lending library, children’s book lending library and other community services.

Two-generational change

Jefferson State Community College is using education to move women and their children out of poverty.

"It is almost the old adage of instead of giving someone a fish, teach them how to fish," said Kay Cochran Potter, director of workforce education at Jefferson State Community College. "It is really that theory."

Through funding from The Women’s Fund, Jeff State grants scholarships for single mothers to take fast-track programs to a career. Programs include: pharmacy tech, medical assistant, dental assistant, computer technician.

It doesn’t stop there.

The program also offers life skills, career skills and job readiness training.

"They find success and it empowers them … to reignite what is inside them," said Christine McLain, career counselor at Jeff State. "To have that confidence again."

McIntyre said the program also provided emotional support. McLain and others helped her stay on track when life poised challenges. They made sure she had transportation to class, she said.

"It has been an amazing door opener for so many different step stones of my life," she said, of the program.

The support changed the lives of herself and her children, McIntyre said. It helped her secure a job as a pharmacy technician at the UAB Hospital pharmacy.

"Now that I have completed the program, I have a vehicle. I am still living with family, but I am able to save so one day I can purchase a home for my children and myself to call our own."

McIntyre suffers from lupus, but the health insurance she was able to secure through her career means she can take better care of her health. She can also make sure her children receive the best care, including youngest son, Kaileb, 5, who is a cancer survivor.

"I am happier. I am in a better place mentally," McIntyre said.

Most importantly, she said her children are happy.

McIntyre gets to spend evenings with them. She can even afford to take them to the movies once in a while.

"I can really tell the difference," she said. "They are healthy. They are proud. They say, ‘My mom works at UAB."


Stay connected!
Get our latest updates.