Heartland’s Good STEPS helps single parents take the road to work and self-sufficiency

After working in home health care for a while, Stephenie Potter, a single mother of four children in Battle Creek, was ready for a change -- and a more viable career path.

She first heard about Good STEPS, an innovative, locally focused job training program offered through Goodwill Industries of Central Michigan’s Heartland, Inc., a couple of years ago and finally signed up for the free training and other supports available to unemployed and underemployed single parents. 

Potter received her certified nursing assistant license in November 2017 and had no problem finding a full-time job at a nursing home. It’s given her more stability and confidence, and now she has her sights set on attending Kellogg Community College to take prerequisites for nursing.    

“There are so many opportunities and so many openings,” she says. “I am confident in my job right now; I know I can go anywhere and get a CNA job. It does boost your pay. I know I am going to be bringing in enough money to where I can take care of my family.” 

Re-entering the workforce can be daunting for the most skilled and experienced worker. Add in being a single parent with child care, transportation, or financial issues and it quickly becomes overwhelming.

Credit issues, past evictions, loss of food assistance, and unpaid college tuition can create even more barriers to getting unemployed parents back to work and earning a living wage. Heartland’s Good STEPS (Supporting Transitions to Employment for Parents) aims to do just that and tackle whatever roadblocks that stand in the way. 

Heartland received a grant from W.K. Kellogg Foundation to develop the program and is the only Goodwill in the state to do so. Good STEPS, launched in January 2016, offers educational and job training in high-demand industries, other wrap-around supports, career coaching, financial literacy, and parenting education to participants, says Jerry Mainstone, Heartland’s vice president of workforce development and community relations. 

Focused on a two-generational approach, the program aims to increase greater educational, employment, and economic security outcomes for unemployed or underemployed parents and their children by opening the door to a sustainable career path and financial self-sufficiency. In most low-income families, single mothers are the breadwinner but disproportionately employed in low-wage jobs. 

Heartland has established partnerships with about 30 workforce development and social service agencies, employers, and early childcare stakeholders serving children, newborn to age 8, to provide comprehensive services in the way of employment opportunities, parenting support, and access to benefits assistance. 

“We’ve had parents notice their children’s behavior improve and grades increase,” Mainstone says. “Each one has their own different story because everyone comes in with their own problems and issues. We’ve helped two mothers leave abusive relationships. They couldn’t get out of the shelter and we got them employed and now they’re living on their own.”

Heartland’s staff works with schools, childcare centers, community organizations, and other social service agencies to identify single parents with at least one child under 8 years old who might be a good fit for the program. It takes persistence and reaching out to an average of 25 contacts to get one person to enroll in the program, says Ken Bauer, president/CEO of Goodwill Industries of Central Michigan’s Heartland.  

They complete an initial three-week orientation and training at Goodwill, which includes resume and interview preparation, career awareness, financial literacy, and other education on nutrition, reading, and behavioral health to support their child’s growth and development. 

The orientation helps them assess their present and future home life and circumstances, any barriers to finding a job or staying employed, and what career would give them the best work-life balance. If a single parent has to work long hours or an odd shift seven days a week, that’s not going to do much to improve their child’s home life.  

“At the end of the three weeks, we sit down with them and start talking to them about what a career path looks like, what a schedule looks like, and try to get their interest of where they want to go,” Mainstone says.

Through partnerships with Kellogg Community College and other local employers, participants can pursue training in five career areas: early childhood, healthcare, hospitality, manufacturing, and retail. As of Dec. 31, 2017, 40 participants had received an industry-recognized credential and 62 have been employed for sixth-months after completing the three-week sector training and career training.

The hospitality and retail training are done through Goodwill, whereas the child development associate is a longer program that involves classroom and practicum experience. Those who want to be CNAs go through an intensive three-week training and have to pass a state test.

“When they’re done, we’ll place them in a work experience with an employer that needs CNAs,” Mainstone says. “Once they pass their state test and become certified, they will hire them and put them in a $12- to $15-an-hour job.”

Potter, 28, says the program helps encourage and support women like her who have children and may have made mistakes and shows them that they can still succeed in life. She enjoys being a CNA, but her long-term goal is to become a registered nurse. 

The skills Potter gained in the program have helped her to better handle situations in the workplace, communicate, and set goals. Goodwill staff members including Taneka Thomas, workforce development liaison who initially recruited her for the program, kept her motivated and focused. They stay in contact to see how she is doing and suggested other grants and assistance to continue her schooling.

“They were my pushers, they were on me, telling me ‘you can do it,’” she says. “It’s just good to have somebody behind you who is genuinely happy that you completed something; it makes you feel good when you complete it.”

Unlike other participants, Potter says child care wasn’t an issue but she did have to put in some long days while going through the Good STEPS orientation and CNA training. She works third shift and had someone to watch her children. Her biggest obstacle was financial, and she recently had her car totaled in a wreck. Heartland covered all her expenses related to the CNA training.

“It would have been $1,300 out of pocket,” she says. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

With four children under age 8, having the CNA license gives her more options. It’s given her the courage to keep going. Despite “doing things totally backwards,” Potter wants to set a good example for her children. 

Potter stops in at Goodwill on occasion, recently for a sixth-month follow-up, and has since referred two other participants who have completed Phase 1 of Good STEPS.

“They are a good asset, they have a lot of resources down there that will help you,” she says. “They helped me with my resume and interview techniques.” 

Yolanda White, 39, was part of an early cohort group and chose early childhood education as her career path. She received her child development associate credential and currently works for the Head Start program at Coburn Elementary School, although she aspires to work for herself. 

Referred to the Good STEPS program in early 2016 after applying for a job at Woodlawn Preschool, White says the program helped her access support services to her further her education, career readiness, and financial stability. 

A single mother of two, she returned to work after medical problems took her out of the workforce for a decade and she praises the staff for their coaching and moral support. 

“It gave me a refresher on what to expect,” White says. “The staff here, they made it so you felt love, like they were really on your side.”

White continues to stay active in the program and received WFD Participant Achiever of the Year award. She’s still encountered challenges on the job, especially with her son’s schedule and child care, but participating in Good STEPS gave her the motivation and determination to finish the training.
“I always start stuff and don’t finish it,” she says. “I realized that if I set my mind to something, that I can do it. … The staff helped a lot too because they were very supportive and encouraging and kept you going. You might not feel like going on and they will definitely get you out of that real fast.”

Heartland’s role is to help parents get the skills, supports, and credentials they need to find better-paying jobs, create a stable home life, and feel a sense of pride and accomplishment so they can then support their children’s development, health, and wellbeing.

“They might get a job and be employed for sixth months and their car stops running,” Mainstone says. “We help them if they need to move into that second stage of their career to get additional training, so we don’t really exit them from the program.”

Throughout the process, Goodwill staffers realized there are often unforeseen circumstances and obstacles that hinder a single parent from completing training and re-entering the workforce, especially in the way of finding adequate child care and subsidies for multiple children, or short-term care in the summer, or the fear of losing food assistance before they receive their first paycheck, Bauer says.

Another issue that surfaced is that any child in a professional child care setting must have a physical within 12 months, and often these families don’t have access to a regular doctor. 

Bauer says Heartland learned a lot about the difficulties and bureaucracy parents face in obtaining and keeping child care, and the organization is looking at ways to address the issue with community partners, employers, and legislatively. To get and keep single parents employed, communities need to have a solution to the problem, he says.

“There’s a very large shortage of child care providers in general and that gets more acute in nontraditional working hours and weekends,” Bauer says. “It was a real education in the intricacies of actually getting the subsidies for child care. …This program gave us a great understanding of the difficulties of re-engaging in employment when they have children.”

Many participants have fallen on hard times or had unexpected emergencies, and while Heartland does not help them pay their debts, they can take advantage of budgeting and financial literacy classes or access referrals to find rental, utility, and transportation assistance.  

Besides garnishments and credit problems, another issue that came up is some participants had tuition in arrears at Kellogg Community College, preventing them from re-enrolling in classes, so Heartland opted to pay off the outstanding balance so they could qualify for additional grants and tuition assistance, Mainstone says. 

The Kellogg Foundation has given Heartland flexibility in how to use the funds to help participants, whether it’s to help pay for food until they receive a paycheck or cover educational-related expenses, Bauer says. 

“We advise them about how they can alleviate some of the credit pressures they are getting by setting up payment plans," Bauer says. "We introduce a lot of clients to the banking system because they have lost banking due to overdraft issues.”

The job training and support systems help people stay engaged longer. When they see they are making headway, for instance, their credit score is going up and their debt is going down, those small successes reinforce why people return to work.

“Jerry and his staff have been very nimble in trying to figure out what’s the roadblock and how do we make it easier to get over or eliminate,” Bauer says.

Marla R. Miller is an award-winning journalist and professional writer based in West Michigan. Learn more about her by visiting her website or Facebook. 

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
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