Being a mom is hard. And not just when it comes to juggling a full schedule of kids’ extra-curricular activities while still having to get dinner on the table. A growing number of young mothers struggle to maintain consistent housing, employment and basic financial stability—all things necessary to take care of oneself let alone raise a child. In 2013, actually, the median income for families led by a single mother was about $26,000. Nearly half of them had an annual income less than $25,000.
This is a problem now, and it was a problem 34 years ago when Ellen Kogstad Thompson started New Moms, a Chicago based non-profit with a mission to help young moms aged 13 to 24 to achieve economic independence and family stability. Thompson was seeing an unprecedented number of teen moms with nowhere to call home, and no way to financially provide for their newborns. To support them, she started distributing supplies like diapers and formula from the trunk of her car. And these simple acts of kindness organically evolved into a non-profit enterprise serving thousands upon thousands of Chicagoland mothers for over three decades.
“New Moms was founded 34 years ago to meet a critical need in Chicago: homeless young moms and their children needed a safe place to live and support to end the cycle of poverty,” says current New Mom President & CEO Laura Zumdahl. “Today we still exist because the need still exists. In fact, we serve more young moms and children today than ever before (this year over 300 families). A few years ago we opened a new facility to provide more housing for homeless young families and in one month we had 2,500 on the waiting list! The need is astonishing. If we could build more facilities, we could immediately fill them. As we grow our programs, like our workforce development program that equips young moms for permanent employment, we are able to serve more and more young families each year.”
The biggest obstacle to economic independence and employability, and many of the mothers utilizing New Moms’ services have never had the opportunity to develop employable skills. The organization founded a soy candle brand called Bright Endeavors in 2007 to specifically to provide an opportunity for unemployed young mothers to develop skills and gain leadership experience within a professional environment. 100% of the proceeds of these candles go to programs serving the young moms, so the mothers are literally supporting themselves in this work in more ways than one. Revenue from the candle sales is upwards of 10% of each year’s budget.
The cause has attracted support and growth like moths to a flame. Perhaps because of the plight of these mothers is so readily apparent.
“I hate the very idea of hopeless cycles,” says Zumdahl. “It’s unacceptable to me to think that a young woman who is homeless and parenting a small child is setting up another generation to experience the devastation of poverty. I think we have a moral obligation to do something about this problem in society. New Moms’ mission to end that cycle and help transition two generations of youth on a pathway out of poverty is a powerful answer to this societal problem. I couldn’t not be part of that mission when I learned about it. It’s not easy work—cycles exist for a reason, because they aren’t easy to break. But it’s some of the most important work I could ever do because kids’ lives matter.”
Bright Endeavors is all supporting a worthy cause—but it’s good business, too. New Moms has an annual budget of about $3 million, and roughly 10% of that budget is revenue from Bright Endeavors candle sales. Graduates who go through the entire Bright Endeavors job training program increase their income by an average of 450%. It’s no accident that the organization does this all through candles.
“Candles are a symbol of light and hope, which fits well with our mission of surrounding young moms and their children with the tools they need to transform their lives,” says Zumdahl. “Bright Endeavors was founded on the notion that through the making of a simple, but beautiful object like a soy candle, we could provide critical job training and experience to launch a young mom on a pathway out of poverty, while also making a product that people would love and we could sell to support our mission. Making high quality handmade candles takes some skill, but it’s also something a young mom in our program can master during the course of her few months in our program. It builds confidence in our participants and in return, we have a product that can compete on the significant candle market that exists in the U.S.”
In her tenure as President & CEO, Zumdahl has personally seen some truly miraculous transformations. One was the case of Jennifer, a young homeless mother who joined New Moms while she living in a shelter with her daughter, Layla.
“It was very clear from the beginning that she was on a mission to make a better life for herself and her daughter,” recalls Zumdahl. “Through the experience gained at Bright Endeavors and the coaching she received from our staff, Jennifer was empowered to find a job. But that was not the end of her journey. While in the Workforce Development program, she set her eyes on our Transformation Housing program that offers 2 year transitional housing. She saw an opportunity to provide her daughter with a safe home while she built a foundation for a future filled with opportunities. She was accepted into our housing, and over the past 2 years she showed some serious grit. She shared, ‘I didn’t come here to get comfortable. I always had a job and I focused on learning to be a great parent to Layla so that she would grow up being able to love me and know I loved her.’ Jennifer moved out of our program last month. She has stable housing, a job, and has her eyes set on becoming a radiologist. The day she moved out she said, ‘I know I can do this, I don’t doubt myself anymore.’”
“Sade is another great example of how transformation is a process,” says Zumdahl. “When she graduated from our Workforce Development program she was a different person. She had grown in maturity, was able to see her strengths and felt safe to express herself among professional peers. She shared that something she was so excited to learn about was making SMART goals. Sade said, ‘I learned to set SMART goals and every goal I was setting was getting done! Now I am determined to accomplish my dreams.’
When a young mom can make dreams for their future and see that there is a real possibility that they can accomplish them, life transformation takes hold and the cycle of poverty loses its’ strength.”