CCEVA support is a ‘win-win’ for women, families

Erika Crosby, director of family engagement and mobility services at Catholic Charities of Eastern Virginia, invites children of Aspire and Strive graduates onto the stage during the ceremony honoring the eight women, June 1, 2024. (Photo/Wendy Klesch)

The numbers speak for themselves.

Four college degrees. A combined $248,000 increase in income. A 557-point jump in credit scores.

But they don’t tell half the story.

Families, friends and mentors gathered on Saturday, June 1, to honor eight women in a graduation ceremony hosted by the Catholic Charities of Eastern Virginia (CCEVA) office in Norfolk.

Six of the women had successfully completed Aspire, a three-year-long coaching program in which women work one-on-one with mentors in order to attain economic self-sufficiency. Two had completed Strive, an abbreviated program aimed at increasing financial stability.

“Both programs take a wholistic approach,” said Tracy Fick, CCEVA president and CEO. “We take the whole family into consideration. It’s simply the best way to lead families out of poverty.”

As their names were called, the graduates ascended a stage festooned with white and blue balloons to receive their certificates as the crowd applauded their accomplishments.

“Most of us have had a mentor who has made a difference – either a parent, or a teacher, or a boss,” Fick said. “The difference is that many of these women haven’t had that person in their lives. They have never had anyone cheering them on.”

“These women are incredible. We are so grateful to be a part of their story. They do the hard work. We just walk alongside of them,” she said.

Building dreams

Aspire got its start six years ago, when the United Way of South Hampton Roads group, Women United, asked for new, collaborative proposals.

In response to the call, CCEVA and ForKids designed a pilot program called Aspire, in which mentors and participants work together, discussing each participant’s individual needs.

“When families are in crisis, they don’t get to dream. It’s all they can do to live month to month. It’s all they can do to ask, ‘How am I going to pay my rent? How am I going to keep my children healthy and in school?’” Fick said.

“We sit with them and ask, ‘What are your goals?’” she said.

Participants and mentors assess several “rungs in the ladder” toward improving the women’s lives, Fick explained, including employment, finances, housing, transportation, and childcare. One woman might be set up for success in one area, but might need more support in another.

Mentors also take into consideration the women’s social support network as well as their physical and mental health.

There is space for 40 women in the three-year program.

“It’s a big investment; you are working with fewer numbers, but more intensively and for longer periods of time,” Fick said. “But it’s a game-changer. All in all, it’s a beautiful pro-life statement.”

To qualify for Aspire, a woman must be stably housed and have some earned income. Women can be single or married, but they must have a minor child in the home.

Strive was created as a sister program, addressing the needs of women with less economic stability, coaching them so that they might be ready to aspire for more.

“The hope is, when they graduate from Strive, they will move on to Aspire,” Fick said.

Reaching goals

Graduate Asyia Jackson said she joined Aspire in February 2023 when a co-worker recommended the program.

“I’m a single mom, trying to navigate all that that entails,” she said. “It sounded like just what I needed.”

She had been working as a substitute teacher, she said, and she knew, going into the program, that she wanted a better career. Jackson credits Precious Jackson, mobility mentoring manager and Aspire mentor at CCEVA, for helping her to reach her goal.

“I just kept applying and applying,” she said. “I knew I would have Precious at my ear, asking me for updates.”

Today, Asyia Jackson is a state-certified doula and a program director for a community-based mental health program in Virginia Beach.

“I had the vision,” she said. “I knew what I needed to do. The accountability and support—that’s what helped me get there.”

New beginnings

By the end of Aspire, the hope is that candidates are on-track to make at least 60 percent of the area’s median income and have $1,500 in savings, Fick said.

“Women United matches what they save twice – so they leave with $4,500 in savings,” she said.

The program also provides gap funding in the case of emergencies, such as an unexpected car repair bill.

“We don’t want to have them go into their savings,” she said.  “We want to give them the chance to let that grow.”

Jenette Hastings, a mother of five who recently graduated from Old Dominion University with a degree in communications, said, for her, the Aspire program was a “win-win.”

“The wonderful thing about it is that all of the goals are incentivized,” she said. “There are gift cards and incentives to do the things that I knew I needed to do anyway.”

She particularly appreciated the help in building up her savings account, she said.

“It was perfect for me. They gave me the motivation to keep going,” she said.

Hastings has completed an internship at WAVY-TV, Hampton Roads’ NBC affiliate, and plans to pursue her master’s degree at Regent University this August.

With an increase in her savings to fall back on and a career in journalism before her, Hastings is ready to celebrate new milestones, both large and small.

“My oldest son just got his driver’s license,” she said, smiling. “He drove us over here.”

For the children

Erika Crosby, director of family engagement and mobility services, said she worked in the foster care system for years before joining CCEVA.

It’s been a privilege to work for Catholic Charities, to “be on the other side of the equation,” she said, doing what she can to make families stronger.

“It’s inspiring to see all that these women have accomplished,” Crosby said. “We wanted this to be a special day for them.”

At the end of the ceremony, the graduates’ children joined their mothers on stage. Teens stood, bashfully proud of their mothers, while toddlers leapt with joy at finding themselves in the spotlight.

“It’s such a joy to see all of those little faces,” Crosby said. “These women have worked so hard, and so much of what they do, they do for them.”


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