Erika Rodriguez, 31, had three kids and was expecting a fourth when she learned about the Jeremiah Program, a Minnesota-based nonprofit with a branch in Roxbury. The program offers college pathways, financial coaching, and self-esteem support for single moms. Rodriguez enrolled in 2019 while her kids were in school or Head Start. It was a huge step, mentally and financially. She’d gone to Bunker Hill Community College for a while, but her family life got in the way.
“It wasn’t only the kids. It was my personal life and the relationship I had with the father of the kids. That’s what really threw me off, because in my mind, I was thinking everything was going to work. It may sound dumb, but in my mind, I never thought that we wouldn’t have worked — that we would have kids and I would be a single mom,” she says. “I didn’t even know what to do with my life. ... I kind of got stuck.”
The Jeremiah Program aims to disrupt the cycle of poverty for single mothers and their kids: Here, moms are reminded of their worth. It shepherds enrollees through college and offers vital supports like financial coaching, tutoring for kids, and, in some cases, essential services such as food or housing. The Roxbury headquarters also serves as a gathering place for women to share their life experiences and cheer one another on.
College, though, is a centerpiece of the program: The moms enroll in a one-to-one coaching relationship for between three to five years as they complete either an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree.
“We know a mom can stand to make a million dollars more over her lifetime with a college degree than her peer with just a high school diploma,” says Boston director Alison Carter Marlow. “The system is rigged for the Harvards and the Yales. Most of us can’t afford $70,000 a year. You don’t need a Harvard or Yale degree to access your dreams.”
Moms start with an empowerment and leadership experience. It’s a 12-week course, 90 minutes per week, in which they identify goals and determine if they’re ready to apply for college. After the initial period, they match with a coach who works with them on advocacy and practical skills. This year, 74 women are active in the program, more than Marlow’s projected 70. She says that the pandemic underscored the necessity of a college education.
“I think COVID gave us a really unique opportunity to see the ways in which folks with jobs that required a college degree had so much more flexibility, so many more protections. Moms with a college degree were able to work more likely from home. They were earning salaries and had health care. Whereas the moms who were working hourly or part time, whose jobs just required a high school degree, didn’t seem to experience that same level of stability in their jobs, in their careers,” Marlow says.
Rodriguez was ready to take that step toward stability after years of uncertainty.
“I wanted my bachelor’s degree, and I wanted to do it in a certain amount of time. I also wanted to work on myself. I wanted to be a better person for me and my kids and organize our lives. I also wanted to find a career that would be beneficial to me, and what I like. I also wanted to start a business,” she says.
These goals initially seemed unthinkable: Rodriguez had drifted into a funk after leaving Bunker Hill, and her life began to veer off track.
“I was struggling with self-confidence, self-love, not feeling empowered,” she says. She felt sad and displaced, dissatisfied with mental health professionals and unsure of her career path.
“They weren’t giving me what I felt like I needed. So it wasn’t working until I kind of started trying to do it on my own, finding life coaches at Jeremiah and other support people from community organizations. That’s where I really got a lot of support,” she says.
At first, major life changes felt daunting. She says the program has helped her to envision a clearer future — plus it gave her self-confidence, too.
“When you have a lot of kids, it seems impossible: Oh my God, am I really going to accomplish this? Is this really going to be worth it? But … when you see that you get one thing accomplished, and then another thing comes, and then you accomplish that, and you just keep going, then you see: OK, it just takes time. It takes effort. It takes hard work,” she says.
Peer coaching lends the program its empathetic edge, staffed by women who reflect Jeremiah members’ life experiences.
“Eighty percent of our moms are BIPOC, either African American, Caribbean American, Latina, Cape Verde, Asian. So we have a wide range, but the majority are BIPOC. My team is one-hundred percent BIPOC. All women. So these coaches bring such passion and such energy and such, ‘You can do it, because I’ve been there, too.’ They’re really credible models for our moms of what’s possible,” Marlow says.
The Jeremiah Program currently partners with schools such as Endicott College, Southern New Hampshire University, Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology. It also provides laptops and facilitates up to 33 hours of child care per semester, plus an additional 20 hours per month through volunteers at Sitters for Scholars. It also offers EdNavigator advocacy for moms who are grappling with kids’ IEPs or 504 plans, and it helps to fund 529 plans. Kids also qualify for subsidized tutoring through Ann’s Christian Learning Center in Dorchester.
Moms also get financial coaching through Women’s Money Matters, which teaches basic money-management skills to lower-income women throughout the Boston area. The Jeremiah Program is also cultivating partnerships with the Boston Housing Authority, which may give Jeremiah status as a supportive partner so that eligible moms can access apartments within their portfolio, Marlow says.
The Jeremiah Program hosts its first post-COVID public fund-raiser, Voices Rising, on Wednesday, Oct. 12, at Laugh Boston.
“We’d love to get 250 people in the room who have never heard of Jeremiah but got invited by a friend and want to learn and hear from our moms about these inflection points that they were at when they joined Jeremiah, and how it transformed what they dreamed for themselves and their kids,” Marlow says.
In 2021, Rodriguez received a bachelor’s degree in business management from Southern New Hampshire University. Now she mentors other moms going through the program, and she works part time at First Teacher, a school-readiness program serving families primarily in Dorchester and Roxbury. Today, as a Jeremiah Program mentor, she wants other single moms to feel optimistic and in control.
“Always focus on yourself, and never give up on yourself. That’s the first thing that I had to learn the hard way. Because, once you give up on yourself, then you just lose it, and you don’t get to do what you really want to do as an individual,” she says.