Poverty is a complex issue that doesn’t have a one-size solution—but it can be disrupted. One way of doing so is by partnering with single moms to give them the opportunities and tools they need to architect a life that meets their goals and ambitions. Since 1998, that’s what Jeremiah Program, a national organization based in Minneapolis, exists to do. It’s on a mission to break the cycle of poverty, two generations at a time.

“Single moms know their issues and how to solve them better than anyone else,” said Karla Benson Rutten, Executive Director, St. Paul. “That’s why we don’t ‘help’ or ‘fix’ their lives. We support, partner, and serve with them.”

Jeremiah Program was founded on the belief that a strong and thriving community is needed to create strong and thriving individuals.  

“A lot of the time, the root issue our moms face is that they just don’t have access to the resources they need,” said Patty Healy Janssen, Executive Director, Minneapolis. “We believe that moms not only need a seat at the table but need to be part of the agenda that gets them to the table in the first place. And that’s something I really love. We honor the voice and agency of each of our moms, and they’re leading every step of the way.”

Empowering single moms to harness their power

“What drew me is the simplicity—but also the complexity—of the mission,” said Karla. “Like many of our moms, I was also a first-generation college student, and I understand what it’s like being the first in a family to go to college. I know the power of what can happen in a generation.”

Jeremiah Program’s philosophy of approaching poverty as a social justice issue is intentional because it more comprehensively addresses the challenges and barriers single moms face.

“We can’t have single-issue solutions because single moms aren’t facing just one issue,” said Nekey Oliver, Director of Grants & Government Relations at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, a 2013 program graduate and current Jeremiah board member. “By being focused on addressing needs like housing, mental health, parenting, and more, we can break the continuous poverty mindset. When the mom is empowered and educated, you’re educating and empowering the child too.”

And that’s key.

Access to education is what moves the needle. Before joining, moms are placed in training focused on empowerment and leadership. The course is designed to show them they’re valuable and lovable and introduce them to the tools they need to thrive. They continue this training through coaching and mentorship once in the program while also going to school, raising their kids, and working.  

In addition to the educational resources, Jeremiah’s stable housing stands out as a huge draw to program participants like Australia Ford.  

“In the past, it was always a struggle trying to go to school and work to pay bills,” Australia said. “I always felt like when I took a step forward, I’d end up ten steps back.”

Australia came from a single-parent home with eight siblings. At the age of twelve, she entered the foster care system, and her grandmother eventually became her guardian.

“I was finally able to focus on being a kid and going to school instead of having to survive,” shared Australia. “I knew before I graduated high school I wanted to go to college. I had told myself no matter what happens, I would always persist.”

Enabling new beginnings and opportunities

“After high school, my grandmother passed away,” said Australia. “I struggled for a few years in an abusive relationship, and eventually, I had a little boy. I knew I needed to regain focus to give my son the life I wanted and be the mom I never had. I left that relationship, and when I got into the program, I was ready to give it everything I had. None of my other siblings had graduated from high school by this time. I knew I had to do this not only for myself and my son but to break the generational barriers within my family.”  

Since joining the program, Australia is on a new path, one where she has accomplished so much.  

“I went from foster care, homelessness, abuse, and chemical dependency to healing myself and becoming five years drug-free, a college graduate, and a middle-class worker,” described Australia. “I realized how far I’ve come when I no longer met the criteria for the cash assistance program I was in. I cried tears of joy because I knew that without Jeremiah Program, I may never have gotten to where I am. When people come from where I did, the reality is most never make it out. That cycle is repeated for generations to come.”

But Australia knows this is just the beginning for her.

“The support I’ve received is paramount,” emphasized Australia. “Now that I’ve begun this journey, a fire has been lit inside of me. The sky is not the limit—because where I can go from here is limitless. Jeremiah stood by its mission, and along with my hard work and persistence, the link between my family and poverty is broken.”

Nekey is also a living testament to her own strength, power, and determination combined with Jeremiah Program’s support and resources.

“I grew up in a single-parent household being raised by, uniquely, my father,” said Nekey. “College was always a known factor. I got into the University of Minnesota and found out I was pregnant, which was a surprise. But I knew I’d go back to school. Eventually, I did and learned of Jeremiah Program. To just be with other women who were at various stages in their lives, but similar situations, was helpful. It was helpful to have that community who understood what you were going through.”

It was a turning point for Nekey.

“I no longer had to focus on safety,” said Nekey. “I could focus on school, on my son, and on myself and my growth. The relationships you build while in Jeremiah are really important—that’s what shifted my trajectory in life again. Both my kids and I still have friends from the program almost a decade later. It’s a long-lasting community.”

Being a single mother living in poverty can be isolating.

“One of the many barriers to breaking poverty’s cycle is not having a supportive community,” said Patty. “Our moms are coming in many times with little to no social capital. We can provide that to them—we can be supportive, a cheerleader, and an accountability partner.”

Looking to the future

Jeremiah Program will continue to adapt to the issues that arise based on what the moms need.

Many alumni share how the organization’s staff is open to feedback and improving the programming. Because of that, there’s now an alumni support system so moms, and their families, continue to receive support after they’ve graduated from the program. One of Jeremiah Program’s biggest achievements is its expansion to serve beyond the Twin Cities area and become a national organization.

But the hope for growth doesn’t stop there.

“I’d really like to see Jeremiah Program expand even more,” said Australia. “There are so many moms who could benefit from JP.”

  • Hiring them for internships  
  • Providing networking opportunities
  • Volunteering to share your expertise on a topic, like wealth management

Reach out to Patty (pjanssen@jeremiahprogram.org) and Karla (kbensonrutten@jeremiahprogram.org) if you’re interested.

Patty Janssen (left) and Karla Benson Rutten (right)