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The Grooming Project: Overcoming Poverty Four Paws at a Time

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After years of work in nonprofits, Natasha Kirsch had seen enough.

She had seen too many single moms struggling with addiction, incomplete education and past incarceration. She knew women who were working multiple low-wage, second-shift jobs, living in cars, on the street or bouncing between friends and family with their own problems. Their children were following their families’ footsteps, on a path to perpetual poverty.

So Natasha decided to do something about it. She established Empowering the Parent to Empower the Child, or EPEC, a nonprofit lifting welfare-dependent single parents out of poverty to give their children a better future. EPEC’s first program, The Grooming Project, launched in January 2016, taught dog grooming, a high-demand, living-wage trade, to six women needing a second chance.

Almost two years later, 16 once-impoverished moms have completed the six-month training. Thirteen are making $35,000+ grooming pups in pet stores, salons and veterinarians’ offices by day; they’re home at night to focus on their kids.

Learning Experiences
Dog grooming is booming, and good groomers are in such demand employers will take a chance on those with difficult pasts. The Grooming Project’s comprehensive curriculum produces excellent groomers, but first comes securing housing, child care and food.

“It’s hard to concentrate on learning if you don’t know where you’re going to stay that night,” Natasha says. Her team assesses incoming students’ needs several weeks in advance, stabilizing the basics before classes begin. Then, while they learn grooming skills, students are schooled in parenting, budgeting and “soft skills” such as conflict management, dependability and job expectations.

“Most of the women in our program have raised themselves. They grew up in and out of foster care or on the street, with no positive role models in their lives,” Natasha says. “They all have experienced trauma, and working with the dogs is a release for them.”

Partnership Power
It takes a village to brighten a child’s future by empowering the mom, and Natasha has built one around The Grooming Project. The Women’s Employment Network counsels each student on budgeting. Rose Brooks specialists train grooming instructors on the impact of trauma on the brain.

Volunteer mentors are role models. SkillUP, a federal jobs program for food stamp recipients, reimburses part of each student’s $12,000 training cost. “We have partnerships with domestic violence shelters, addiction recovery centers, child care providers, dentists and eye doctors,” Natasha says.

It’s Working
Natasha and her village are already making a difference.

One early student was an ex-felon living in her car, her children staying with family elsewhere. Today, she’s a grooming manager making $45,000 in a pet superstore and living with her kids in an apartment. A mother of six who hadn’t worked in years now grooms at a salon and is teaching newly learned budgeting skills to her children.

All are raising their kids’ expectations. “They say, ‘I did it, you can too,” Natasha says.

Natasha remembers the day she texted graduates about a new food stamp benefit. “One after another, responses came back: ‘Natasha, we’re off food stamps now.’

“That’s my joy,” she says. “It’s working.” ■

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Written by: Linda Odell