Tucson group expanding its reach to grant scholarships, other help to single moms

April Walker was in nursing school and newly single, with two young children and significant financial stress, when she overheard a conversation between classmates.

That day, now three years ago, is when she first heard of Single Mom Scholars. She credits the program with helping her leave behind a future of poverty, and to now earn more than $70,000 a year.

By the end of this month, Walker will be one of 35 women in Southern Arizona who have earned a college degree with help from Single Mom Scholars since it started here in 2015.

“What they did for me, you can’t buy that,” Walker said.

Selected moms must already be in school, have a grade-point average of at least 2.5 on a 4.0 scale and be caring for at least one child under the age of 11. The women must also be living at or below 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines, which is now $31,995 for a family of three.

Preventing these women from dropping out of school, and introducing them to other single moms through support groups, are core tenants of the program, which used to be called Helping Hands for Single Moms. The effort became affiliated with the nonprofit Interfaith Community Services in 2017.

Single Mom Scholars will now be receiving guidance, including a grant of $25,000, from Social Venture Partners Tucson. The agency invests in non-profits with high potential and helps expand existing services.

“We’re really interested in what breaks the cycle of poverty and the pathways out of it,” said Ciara Garcia, CEO of Social Venture Partners, which started here in 2006. “Education is the most significant factor in that. It changes the life of the mom and the lives of their children for generations to come.”

Garcia said many nonprofits are under-resourced.

“There are really good solutions out there that need to be supported and grown,” she said.

The Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona, in a recent study, estimates that roughly 33,000 single mothers here could use the same kind of help Walker received.

Participant Athena Atkins knows that need well.

Atkins said she had experienced domestic violence and was facing homelessness when she first heard of Single Mom Scholars. She was not sure how she was going to finish her degree or realize her dream of becoming a registered dietitian.

Now a University of Arizona junior, she had a new baby to care for when the child’s father left last summer.

“I like to call it divine intervention,” she said of hearing about the program. Atkins was driving by and had stopped at Interfaith Community Service’s offices to change her daughter’s diaper when she saw a pamphlet on Single Mom Scholars.

“I couldn’t have done it without this group,” she said. “They helped me figure out how to support myself and my children until I can become self-sufficient.”

Arizona saves about $20,000 on services and assistance each year when success replaces poverty for single moms, said Lia Pierse, the self-sufficiency director at Interfaith Community Services and head of Single Mom Scholars.

Currently, one in four children in Pima County lives in poverty, Pierse said, and about 80 percent of those children live in households headed by single mothers.

In addition to support groups and ongoing talks to help bolster success, the women who are selected also receive financial assistance.

Single Mom Scholars provides a $3,600-a-year scholarship, as well as assistance with things like auto repairs and computer access. The children of the women who become involved can receive tutoring, mentoring and life-skills coaching.

The program has an annual budget of about $180,000 so the additional funding will not only help provide funding for more single moms, an increase of about 20 percent, but it will also help the agency plan ahead and increase services over time, Pierse said.

On Tuesday, about 100 women involved with ICS and Single Mom Scholars received new work clothing, chair massages, nail and hand treatments, jewelry, haircuts and shoes.

The clothing was all donated by Cabi Clothing through a Cabi Cares event, while other vendors included Color Street Nails, Mary Kay, Boom Salon, Lucky Cat Social Art and Serenity Massage of Tucson.

On average, the women go from earning about $9,000 a year when they enter the program to an average of $50,000 within a year of receiving their degree.

About 90 percent of the single mothers who enter the program earn a degree, Pierse said. Currently there are 25 single mothers and 50 children enrolled in the program.

Walker said getting to know other women like her has been wonderful. She said hearing other people’s stories helped her focus on overcoming her own challenges, and also made her realize that a lot of people have been through hard times.

“I was going through a divorce and I was lost, I was scared,” she said. “I didn’t want a handout, I wanted help. I didn’t want a gift, I wanted someone to tell me it’s OK.”

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