Catholic Charities of Eastern Virginia works to empower mothers

(Left to right) Maria Bennett, Sherica Isaacs (holding her son Javon Knight) and Malika Brown listen to speakers at Catholic Charities of Eastern Virginia's symposium for Strive and Aspire participants on Oct. 7, 2023.

In its never-ending quest to help struggling mothers, Catholic Charities of Eastern Virginia (CCEVA) hosted “Igniting Possibilities: A Professional Symposium for Female Empowerment” at its Norfolk office Oct. 7.

It was a networking event and celebration of the personal growth of participants in the organization’s mobility mentoring and empowerment programs called Strive and Aspire.

Through intensive coaching and goal planning with a trained on-staff mentor, the 12-18 month Strive program helps women become economically stable by addressing housing, work, transportation and childcare struggles.

The three-year Aspire program takes it one step further by offering a holistic approach to aspects of their lives such as parenting, transportation, health, childcare, employment and education.

Working one-on-one with mentors, the women set goals for themselves and learn how to pursue those goals so they have a strong footing when they graduate the program, explained Tracy Fick, CCEVA president and CEO.

Proven track record

Aspire and Strive aim to make the women self-confident and self-sufficient. The programs provide someone “to walk with” the participant, at first “guiding and helping and then gradually backing off, but helping them to develop those decision-making skills that will lead them into a better future,” Fick said.

The programs have a proven track record. By graduation, Aspire participants are earning at least 60% of area median income and have saved at least $1,500, Fick said.

The average Aspire participant increased her earnings by $4.75 an hour or more and had a rise in annual income of $13,245.24.

Eighty percent of Strive and Aspire participants increased their credit score by an average of 77 points. Within the Aspire program, participants having FICO credit scores above 620 have increased from 28% to 57%, thus qualifying more low-income families for first-time home purchases, reported Erin Vance, CCEVA marketing coordinator.

Embrace the hard times

Twelve participants attended the symposium, getting a chance to network with 40 professionals in healthcare, business and fields such as education and child development.

In addition, five women spoke on the theme of the networking event: courage. Two Aspire participants discussed their journeys to success; and Ruth McCall-Miller, Mylira Green and Jessica Simmons gave motivational speeches.

Simmons, a certified life coach, explained how struggles lead to personal growth. She said one might have a “horrible month or horrible year,” but that is merely a transitional season that needs to be met with courage.

She explained that sometimes when one is seeking encouragement, one is looking for “the glitz and the glamour” or “the sunshine and rainbows.”

“Sometimes courage is ugly. Courage does not have a bright smile some days. Courage comes with some rain and some storms, some tsunamis,” she said. “Courage is what I define as being strong. And even in my toughest battles, strength comes from within.”

She advised the women to embrace the hard moments, because “at the end of the day it is building up courage.”

Simmons also encouraged them to recognize their successes.

“Sometimes courage is looking at yourself in the mirror and saying ‘I did it. I can do it. I can achieve it,’” she said.

McCall-Miller, regional parent training director for First Home Care, assured the women that they may feel invisible at times, but the world sees them and recognizes their contributions and accomplishments.

Green, a clinical social worker, revealed she was sexually assaulted and subsequently suicidal as a teenager before turning her life around. She said, “Courage looks like making a decision when it is tough to make it.”

“It’s okay to not be okay, but it’s not okay to stay there,” she said. “You are empowered. That means you get to choose what you place your power in.”

She stressed the need to find harmony in life, emphasizing the importance of self-care. She also said one way people can move from their trauma is through mentoring programs like Aspire and Strive.

“You do not have to do this journey on your own,” she said.

Changing lives

Since 2019, CCEVA has served 42 families in Aspire, which is almost six years old, and 13 families in Strive, which has been in place for about 2-and-a-half years.

Both programs have changed lives.

For example, before Strive, Virginia Beach resident Maria Bennett and her husband were struggling to raise their four children. Now, she said, she earns the same amount of money with one job as she did with two, giving her the opportunity to spend more quality time with her children, ages 3 to 11. She is applying for college so she can open her own child daycare center and perhaps pursue a degree in child psychology. Meanwhile, she is working to improve her credit score and is seeking mental health services.

Sherica Isaacs, of Norfolk, also in Strive, is earning her high school diploma, looking for an apartment so she can move out of her sister’s home, and aspires to be a veterinarian.

She said before Strive, “I had no motivation, I had nothing to look forward to. I was just always by myself, down, thinking ‘This is it.’ … (There was) nobody there to encourage me, push me. It’s a real relief that there are people out there willing to spend their time with people like me to show me ‘Hey, this is life; you can do it. I’m proud of you.’”

Likewise, Bennett said she was skeptical at first that Strive would be beneficial, but ultimately her mentor’s extra encouragement is motivating her to do more and to put her aspirations into action.

Malika Brown, of Virginia Beach, said Aspire gave her concrete steps to reach her goals. She has improved her credit score, received a certificate in mental health first aid, and become a notary. She also moved from being an office service specialist at the Norfolk health department to a higher-paying position as a billing fee clerk for the city of Virginia Beach. She plans to buy a home for the first time and to pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees in health management.

Because most Strive and Aspire participants first sought other CCEVA services such as pregnancy and parent support, Fick described the programs as “a beautiful pro-life statement.”

“We’re not just telling women to choose life but we’re helping them build their families to a place that they’re strengthened; they’re strong, and we’re just definitely addressing the whole person,” she said.

Women who apply to be in Strive and Aspire must have children, be working or in school, and be committed to making lasting changes, Fick said.

“So many of the people that we serve are really working hard but they’re just not able to get ahead, especially now with inflation and what-not. So that’s what these programs are really designed for – to help people that are wanting to move out of poverty,” Fick said.

Mentors help them recognize stressors and develop the steps and find the resources needed for them to stop living in crisis, she explained.

That’s been true for Isaacs.

“I am in Strive because there are some goals that I need to fulfill and to complete in order to get my life together, so that’s what Strive is doing for me,” she said. “They have shown me that there is more to life … It makes me want to excel and to actually have a career.”

Brown said, “Being the head of your household, (you have) to be the start and the end of everything, making all of the decisions … there are times when you feel empty, like you don’t have enough strength for yourself, so with Aspire … there was someone who believed in me … so that I wouldn’t be empty.”

About recommending Strive to others, Isaacs would tell them, “Go ahead. Get it because it will change your life. It will change your way of thinking. It will put you in a different head space and give you something to look forward to in life because they are very encouraging, positive people that want to see you win.”


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