For Single Moms, Program Means Jobs And A Chance To Change Lives

By Donald Bradley
The Kansas City Star.


All Kelly Wilson set out to do was hire a few single moms from impoverished neighborhoods.

She’d heard a Catholic nun pitch the idea to a gathering of female business owners around Kansas City.

Wilson went one better. She loaded up her custom drapery business in an 18-wheeler and moved the whole operation to a corner not far from Operation Breakthrough, the child care center that nun founded in 1971.

Some of those mothers Wilson hired at Weave Gotcha Covered had relied on an hour-and-a-half bus ride to work. Cold mornings, cold waits, cold walks.

Now it’s Wilson who gets the longer commute.

“But you know what, I have the luxury of having a car,” she said. Then she shook her head.

“This isn’t about me. This is about something bigger.”

What’s going on inside this old brick building is exactly what Sister Berta Sailer had in mind when she envisioned her jobs program. She sees those women every day when they drop off children at Operation Breakthrough. She knows their struggle against poverty, the streets and sometimes themselves.

The stories are different and all the same.

“I know this place can’t save me, I have to do that myself,” Jeanetta Lindsey, mother of a 4-year-old son, said of Weave Gotcha Covered. “But in here, we have each other.”

Partners for the jobs program include Operation Breakthrough, the Women’s Employment Network and Amethyst Place, which provides housing for women in recovery and their children.

Two businesses signed up for the trial run. Now more are wanted.

Requirements are that jobs pay $9 to $10 an hour, maybe more, with child-friendly 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. workdays Monday through Friday.

But beyond job description, the women, some who have lived on the streets, finally feel they belong somewhere.

Wilson teaches them how to make high-end custom drapes and furniture coverings so maybe they can someday go out on their own. They get help with school and GEDs. They don’t get fired because of a sick child or missed bus.

Business is good and growing. Last year, Weave Gotcha Covered did a half million dollars’ worth.

“We make a lot of stuff we’ll never be able to afford,” Myisha Jones, 36, said with a laugh.

She started in November 2013. The place is like family to her.

“If we need something, we call each other. We tell each other things. That’s why we’re all so close.”

The group prepares lunches together. Wilson encourages them to attend college part time. Most do.

“You do what you have to do, this is your life,” she tells them.

But above everything else, these moms say the best part is that for the first time, they are not judged.

“This is a new kind of place, and we get to be part of it,” said Teresa Taylor, 30, a seamstress.

One recent morning, Libby Carter couldn’t go six steps without somebody sticking a piece of paper in her face.

She glanced, answered and moved on. Glanced, answered and moved on.

Carter is the warehouse manager at Grapevine Designs, a million-dollar sales promotions company. She finally made it to her cubicle in the quieter office part to call about a problem with an order to London.

Resolved. She spun her chair around and smiled a pretty smile.

“Busy morning,” said Carter, 30.

Not long ago, she had a mouthful of rotten teeth, needle marks and a little boy scared for his mom. She couldn’t even manage herself.

Then a complete stranger to her and her world, a woman named Janie Gaunce, took a bus ride with other female business owners and listened to Sailer narrate a tour called “The City You Never See.”

It was September 2012. The bus passed long stretches of abandoned storefronts. People huddled at bus stops. Lines waited outside food pantries. At stops, a mom would climb aboard and tell her story.

When the tour ended, Sailer closed: “So, who can hire a mom?”

Wow, Gaunce said to herself. And she thought she was good at sales promotion.

But that’s how Carter came to work for her at Grapevine Designs and become the first in Sister Berta’s 100 Jobs for 100 Moms.

“Libby’s been great and grown so much, she just needed a chance,” said Gaunce, who has since hired three more of Sailer’s moms. “We count on her to show up every day and do the work, and she does. She now mentors other moms.”

The program is not for every employer. Addiction means some of the women have a criminal history. Large corporations might flinch at the felony convictions.

Smaller, women-owned businesses may be best suited and most willing to give the women a chance, said program coordinator Julie Carmichael.

One of Gaunce’s moms has moved on to a better position with a software development firm.

“We have changed the lives of eight women,” Gaunce said. “What if everybody hired one?”

These moms come with stories.

Lindsey was living on the streets at 14. She started doing meth, which turned into an addiction.

“All I prayed for back then was for somebody to love and to love me back,” she said.

She got pregnant. Lost her son to child welfare officials. Got him back. Lost him again. Got him back. She’s now worked at Weave Gotcha Covered for more than a year and is taking nursing classes at a community college.

Taylor’s story has some of the same elements plus the death of a boyfriend.

“I was at the end of my life,” she said. She started at Weave a year ago.

Lindsey, Taylor and Carter live with their children at Amethyst Place, which opened because of the high rate of relapse for single mothers after release from 30-day drug programs.

The three have been clean now for several years, each quick to recite the exact date of sobriety.

Mary Joy Fant, Wilson’s partner at Weave Gotcha Covered, said patience is key.

“I get aggravated, sure,” Fant said. “These moms are at different stages of life, and some of that is arrested development. But at heart, they are good people trying to make their lives better.

“I’ve seen them change so much.”

Some moms feel out of place at first, Gaunce said. Carter was shy. Then she had 14 teeth pulled, making her even more withdrawn from other workers.

“My eyes swelled up, and I sounded like a hillbilly,” she said.

Then came the morning her son needed a rosary for school.

“I didn’t know what a rosary was, I’m not Catholic,” she said. “But I still felt terrible because Logan needed a rosary and I didn’t have one.”

A co-worker called her over that day and took something from her purse.

“It was her dead mother’s rosary,” Carter said. “She told me to take it to my son. That made me feel so good, that I did belong there.”
Everyone at Grapevine knows Logan now. He was very impressed with his mother’s cubicle and fancy computer monitor.

One day while riding in the car, Logan, 12, turned to his mom and told her he was proud of her.

Surprised, she asked why.

“For getting a job and having an office,” he told her. “And you stopped doing drugs. We’re OK.”
She cried.

Another life changed by Sailer’s moms program could be the owner of that brick building.

When Wilson approached Vince Vitale, he wasn’t interested in renting. His dad built the place in 1945 and for years ran a neighborhood grocery store there, peddling fruit and produce out on the sidewalk. The family lived across the street.

Besides, he told her, the building was crammed to the rafters with family stuff.

But then Wilson told Vitale and his wife about the moms and their struggles.

Next thing, Vitale emptied the building. He painted, put in insulation, installed new windows and upgraded the heating and cooling.

“Well,” Vitale said sheepishly, “she made it sound like a good thing.”

When the 18-wheeler arrived Jan. 30 from the old location, Taylor’s parents and brothers helped unload the equipment, tables and reams of fabric. Jones’ husband pitched in.

“This is about a good heart,” Wendy Tanner, Taylor’s mother, said of Wilson. “This move is a godsend to my daughter.”

Up north, Taylor had to leave work early every day to catch the 3:26 p.m. bus to pick up her boys from Operation Breakthrough by 5:30.

All Wilson wanted to do nine years ago was start a business. She’d lost her home early in the recession. She said she could be earning a fine living making drapes at home. She finds herself now with more than a dozen workers relying on her.

Marla Hildebrand is a regular customer.

“Kelly does great work, and I have referred her to others,” Hildebrand said. “But what I love is what she’s doing for those women. She’s giving them a fresh start. Not a handout, a hand up.

“She probably didn’t know what she was getting into at first. But this has turned out to be a tremendous blessing for them and her. It makes me think about how often we have the ability to affect other people’s lives.”

On a recent Monday, the whole crew celebrated their first full day in the new location with what they call a “lunch and learn.”

They shared food and stories. Main course: vegetable stew from a 1964 Betty Crocker cookbook.

Wilson started off by thanking them all for helping with the move.

Jones proudly held up a letter from her daughter’s school saying someone had paid $500 for the girl’s art project.

“And she put the money in the bank for college,” she said.

The table cheered.

Shawnda Bell updated the group about her electrical engineering classes. Lindsey got an A on a math test. Jessica Whiles told about her son, a sophomore football player, being selected for a trip to Australia.

Big cheers and high-fives.

Off to the side, Fant marveled at the scene.

“It’s an incredible journey they’re taking.”

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