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Mentoring program helps single moms succeed in the work force

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June 14, 2004View for printing

Alice Menlove thought she had it all -- a husband, four children, a big house in east Sandy. But after 21 years of marriage, her husband walked out, and everything changed.

"I was married to a man who made some bad business choices. Instead of owning up to them, he took off."

By Michael Chandler The Salt Lake Tribune ... /175158.asp

Menlove was left alone with demolished credit, a mortgage she couldn't pay, and four children younger than 16. After 12 years as a stay-at-home mom, she had to get a job. She had no idea where to begin.

In the past year, Menlove has downscaled to a three-bedroom apartment in West Valley City that costs just more than the $632 she receives in cash assistance from the state, and she has weaned her utilities and expenses down to a mere $200 a month. She enrolled in university classes, but had to drop out because she couldn't afford them. Fortunately, she found People Helping People, a nonprofit that trains single moms to enter the work force and become financially self-sufficient.

"The challenge is moving from something we know to something we don't know. It's easier if someone shows you how to do it," says Kayleen Simmons, People Helping People (PHP) executive director. For that reason, the program relies on a model of mentoring. Women professionals and life skills coaches volunteer to help low-income single mothers transition into successful long-term jobs.

The program began in 1993 to promote self-sufficiency for single mothers during the early stages of welfare reform in Utah. More than 10 years later, the number of families on welfare has dropped by more than half, but the number of single mothers with children living in poverty remains high. Forty-seven percent of families who left welfare reported incomes below the poverty line, according to a University of Utah study that tracked 813 families over 18 months from 2000-2002. In 2002, the poverty line for a family of four was $18,392.

The organization serves 50-100 women each year, guiding them through a program that includes skills assessment, professional résumé development, interview training, financial planning, job search assistance, and wardrobe consultation along with a new business suit. Top-level professionals help the women at each step. left welfare reported incomes below the poverty line, according to a University of Utah study that tracked 813 families over 18 months from 2000-2002. In 2002, the poverty line for a family of four was $18,392.

The program also focuses on practical, hard-headed, financial thinking that's usually associated with men.

"Moms are good 'Candyland' players," Simmons says. "Now they have to be 'Monopoly' players."

Mentor Janean VanDusen, a single mother and product manager at Qwest, says that when women are asked what they want, they tend to say things like, "Oh, I want to be fulfilled, or I want a relationship . . . No!" she says. "You want stuff." That stuff -- whether it's a Happy Meal from McDonald's or a big house in a nice neighborhood -- costs money. The program helps women identify what their financial goals are, then helps them develop a plan to achieve them.

In addition, the women have to learn how to achieve in a world that is indifferent to their problems. Unlike the welfare system, which pays them for their hardships and failures, the employment track is completely different. "The workplace is only interested in what you can do," Simmons says, "not what you can't do."

On a Thursday evening, Menlove meets with her mentor in a wood-paneled boardroom to practice interview questions. Kathleen Koprowski, a financial consultant, says she became a mentor because people "showed her the ropes or held out a hand" and helped her succeed in her own career.

Koprowski calls Menlove, a size two-petite woman with freckles and a blonde ponytail, "a little bulldog," referring to her relentless determination. Menlove is so driven that she went through the first part of the program without a mentor. PHP is short of volunteers in the summer months, when many people go out of town.

On her own, Menlove completed hours of self-evaluations -- including her work history and the tangible skills that can be applied from managing a family budget or coaching a child's soccer team, or helping her husband make sales calls. Menlove says she "shocked herself" when she saw all the experience that she had.

"The skills and abilities are already there," Koprowski says. "The main thing is owning them." Koprowski sees her role as helping to build confidence, something sorely lacking for most women in the program. "Saying you can do it, and believing you can do it are two different things."

Menlove's determination could be the key to her success on the bumpy road to financial independence. A single mother with a school-aged child and a teenager would need to earn $14 an hour in order to be self-sufficient, according to a study by Utah Children. For a bigger family, like Menlove's, that number would be even higher.

Many graduates of PHP start off in entry-level jobs at call centers or doing temporary work at $7 or $8 an hour. Instead of seeing these as dead-end jobs, though, the program teaches how to make them beginnings. The women learn how to be punctual and network and volunteer for opportunities that lead to raises and promotions. As salaries slowly increase, they start to rely less on the public assistance that fills in the gaps.

Some graduates have been very successful and moved up quickly. For others, it takes years to reach a break-even point. But whatever the path, PHP teaches the women to move beyond a life of surviving day to day and to look forward -- to a dream job, or an adequate salary.

"I wish I could change back 20 years, but I can't," Menlove says. "I just have to start from here, set goals, and set 'em high!" Life Skills Coaching

People Helping People will hold its next orientation session for mentors and women seeking mentoring at 5:30 p.m. June 15 at 205 N. 400 West, Salt Lake City. Contact Kayleen Simmons, 801-583-4175 or

© Copyright 2004, The Salt Lake Tribune.

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I love my mother so much ❤️
--Jileesa Menlove

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