The DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI) recently graduated the first class in its Moms on the Move program, made up of women from the Kenilworth/Parkside community. DCPNI is a nonprofit organization that has been charged by the federal government with implementing a $25 million grant to help the socio-economically troubled neighborhood in Northeast. Eighty-five percent of Kenilworth/Parkside households raising children are headed by single women, according to a DC PNI report.

The 30-week program, which started last September, works with single moms in the Kenilworth/Parkside “footprint” to empower them to identify and accomplish their goals. The goals identified by members in the first class of moms include completing high school, finishing college and looking for a job — while looking out for their children.  The Moms program makes them see that sometimes they must put themselves first, before they can help anyone else.

A gathering of friends and family was on hand to see the 12 program participants graduate.

DCPNI Executive Director Mary Brown told the class, “You look at yourselves and say ‘I can learn, I can grow.’  That takes courage because some people give up; you didn’t. Keep on fighting.  We’re giving the next generation what they need to move forward.”

A graduating mother, asked to say a few words after she accepted her certificate, told the audience, “It is OK to put yourself first and love yourself.”

The Moms program was conceived by Karol Gilmore-Dixon, DCPNI director of family and community engagement, as a way to empower the mothers of the kids DCPNI gears most of its educational efforts toward helping. The bigger idea was family advancement through education.

The organization wanted a “mother’s cohort” to go along with their programs for young and very young children, especially in the very first years of their educational development.  They wanted the mothers to be educated as well, according to Gilmore-Dixon.

She designed the program to have three modules for participating mothers: 1) taking care of themselves or navigating their lives, 2) personal development and 3) “Moms in Action:” putting their goals in motion.

During the Moms in Action phase, each woman met with a case manager — called a Promise Advocate — to set her individual goals. Those case managers were master’s degree-level social workers who had not yet taken their licensing exams,  The women in the classes also worked with a certified life coach, Dr. Towanna Freeman. “[The program] gives people an opportunity to take ownership of themselves and their lives,” Gilmore-Dixon said in an interview with Street Sense.

The ages of the program participants ranged from 25 years old to about 60 years old, Gilmore-Dixon added, with varied educational attainments.  Some hadn’t completed high school, others had some college.  One woman got a job shortly after graduation.

“They’re all moms and they all have to learn that they can do it themselves,” said Akinima Price, DCPNI’s health and wellness manager. Low self-esteem is self-imposed barrier many of the women had to overcome, having not yet seen themselves in a positive way, according to Price. However, she described the shared experience of being single moms raising their kids by themselves as binding the moms together.

“The magic was that they were all here and all saw themselves in each other,” said Price, All of the moms came to their classes each day after a full day of work and caring for kids.  Both Gilmore-Dixon and Price said that because the point of the program was to “meet (the ladies) where they are,” they learned a lot from the women who participated.

She and Price both want to make this class the first of many more. To recruit the first program participants, DCPNI posted announcements at community events and meetings. “Now it’s selling itself,” Gilmore-Dixon remarked triumphantly; “we don’t need to do much (more) recruitment.  The ladies become the ambassadors.” So how did the women respond?  Participant Deborah Henderson, who lives in the “footprint,” is a mother of four and grandmother of 17, ranging in age from 19 to two.  She described herself in an interview as a strong-willed woman who had been going through a divorce at the time she came to Moms on the Move.

“I found myself needing to care for me and didn’t know how to do it. I learned how to take care of me first and not feel guilty for taking care of me first,” said Henderson, who is also in training to be assistant pastor at the Prayer Base Christian Training Center on Sheriff Road Northeast.

The women realized they had many of the same struggles and bonded over it, according to Henderson. They shared stories and life experiences. She said the age differences encouraged the women to “come together and support the younger mothers with what they were going through,” though she added that they did argue and disagree at times. There was also a lot of networking.

Henderson said proudly that she recently treated herself to a trip to Jamaica with a friend, which was her Moms program goal.  Her second goal is to take care of herself – she’s now lost 13 lbs.  To boot, she said she walks outside for 30-45 minutes each morning.  If it’s too hot, she stays inside and does exercises with her TV and DVDs.

“Unless you take care of you, you’re not good for anybody else,” said Henderson. “If you put your children first and don’t take care of yourself, that’s not good.”