Jeremiah Program aims to end poverty for single mothers and children

a woman and child sit in a library
Recent Jeremiah Program graduate Tara Carlson sits with her son Lucas in the library at the residential facility in Fargo, N.D.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Danica Gibb and her 3-year-old son Liam live in a Jeremiah Program apartment in Fargo. She’s in college and he attends an on-site child care program.

“Without this, I really don’t know where I’d be right now, or what my future would even look like at all,” said the 25-year-old Gibb, who is pursuing a nursing degree.

The Jeremiah Program operates out of an apartment building in Fargo. It’s one of nine programs run by the nonprofit in cities across the country.

The families living here pay 30 percent of their income for rent. Children attend on site day care and early childhood classes. Participants can also live off-site.

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The stated mission of the program is to “disrupt the cycle of poverty two generations at a time.”

two signs hanging on a wall
Inspirational signs hang on the walls throughout the Jeremiah Program apartment building in Fargo.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The national program is primarily funding by grants and donations, nearly $16 million last year. The program also earns revenue from rent and child care.

In the Fargo apartment building there are inspirational signs along the hallways leading to 20 apartments where single mothers live with their children.

Before she signed up for the Jeremiah Program, Gibb was living in a one bedroom apartment, working at a day care and scrambling to pay the bills.

“That’s where I planned on raising him, and it was not a very nice apartment. You know, the neighbors were rowdy,” she recalled during a recent interview.

“I would probably still be working at a day care, just going, going, going,” she said. “We would be living paycheck to paycheck, still working 50 hours a week, spending no time with my kid.”

new kitchen utensils sit on a table
Necessities to help a new program participant get started sit on a table in an apartment at the Jeremiah Program in Fargo.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

In addition to the support she gets to go to school, the program makes it possible to enjoy the small things in life with her son. There are vouchers to attend the symphony orchestra or tickets for a minor league baseball game.

“They’ve given us circus tickets, and the circus was expensive, a working mom in school would not be able to afford that” said Gibb. “And I love that he gets to experience all this in his childhood.”

Her life hasn’t necessarily gotten easier, but she now sees a future. Gibb goes to school full time and works evenings part-time as a nursing assistant.

Her goal is to be a registered nurse.

Committing to the college grind wasn’t easy, said Gibb. Her high school years weren’t a great experience academically.

a woman and child sit on a couch
Danica Gibb is pursuing a nursing degree with the help of the Jeremiah program in Fargo.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

“I don’t like starting things if I don’t know what's going to happen. I think there was a lot of fear of failure,” she said. “And I have not only myself but my son to think about so if I started this and then failed it was not only going to affect me but him as well.”

But living in an apartment building with other single moms facing similar challenges has helped her overcome that fear and stay focused on her ultimate goal; a good job that will allow her to support her son.

A key part of the program is a coach who helps the women negotiate the barriers that might keep them from achieving their goals.

The women learn about communication skills and healthy relationships.

Megan Thompson meets regularly with about 20 women who are in the program, listening to their frustrations, fears, and hopes. She started the job in 2019 shortly after the Fargo Jeremiah Program opened.

a woman sits at a small table
Megan Thompson is a coach with the Jeremiah program in Fargo.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

“Our goal is to get moms a good college education, get them through and get a degree,” Thompson explained. “But at the same time, we’re giving their kids a good start to their education with our child development center,” she said.

Compassion fatigue is real and the daily struggles are sometimes painful, said Thompson. But seeing the women succeed keeps her motivated.

“It’s incredible to watch, and walk alongside the moms that I work with and see all the things they've overcome,” she said.

“I don’t even have the words, like my heart is like bursting. And that sounds so cheesy, but it’s really true.”

A large apartment building
The Jeremiah Program has a mission to help single mothers out of poverty through education.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Last year the program partnered with more than 2,000 single moms and children across the country. Over a 20 year period prior to 2019, the Jeremiah program reported more than 40 percent of participants completed a degree within six years.

That compares with a 28 percent graduation rate in six years among all single mothers, according to research from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Tara Carlson is recent graduate from the Fargo program. She's now employed as a social worker.

“I know for certain I would have never finished college without the Jeremiah Program,” she said.

Carlson relocated from Willmar in 2019 planning to attend Minnesota State University Moorhead. Then she learned she was pregnant and on her own.

She worked two jobs and got by, but she wasn’t happy. So she signed up with the Jeremiah program and started college.

a sign says welcome in many languages
A sign in the lobby of the Jeremiah program building in Fargo greets visitors.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Juggling full class load along a job and a child wasn't easy. There were times she thought about quitting.

“There’s always that thought of, ‘I can just drop school, the stress can be over, and I will just work.’” she said. “But I know that I wanted more for myself. And I know I wanted more for my son.”

Financial and emotional support and the interactions that are part of living in a community of women in the same situation kept Carlson on track. She calls the experience life changing.

“This is a moment in my life, I’ll always look back on and know that I did that with all these other women. And that is huge. And I think forever, you’ll always look back on how I made it through college as a single mom.”

And Carlson expects to find support for years to come in the relationships forged in the sisterhood of single mothers.