Tell me about your life, and how you got to where you are
I was born in Sheridan, where I grew up with my parents and my sister. She is two and a half years younger to the day and we are incredibly close. You don’t choose the circumstances you are born in, but I was fortunate to have been plopped into a wonderful family, a beautiful state, and a fulfilling life. I am incredibly grateful.
I went to college in Massachusetts, and on my first year I was diagnosed with dyslexia. And all of a sudden, my whole life made sense. Growing up I struggled in school, but did well enough that nobody stopped to figure out what was going on. I was a good dancer but couldn’t learn dance steps. The diagnosis made things make sense; it gave me permission to not be so hard on myself. I transferred to Oregon and decided I was going to major in something I liked; I wasn’t thinking about a career. So I went for psychology and Hispanic studies. And, just as my parents predicted, after graduating I ended up back in Sheridan waiting tables and bartending. After a few years I found myself in Dayton, working in a beeffalo ranch as the personal assistant to a film director. I would help with weed whacking and cattle feeding in the morning, and in the afternoon I would look over screenplays. He worked in Hollywood, and that experience showed me that I wanted to be doing something more with my life, I just wasn’t sure what or how to get there.
In 2004 I moved to Laramie to go to law school. I thought a law degree was general enough to allow me to decide what to do with it later. I lived in an apartment above the Brown & Hiser law office, and I would lie on the ground and hope that I would absorb things through osmosis and get smart. I met my husband during law school, and when he moved to Sheridan we would see each other when visited my family. Dyslexia and law school are not a great combination; it was hard but I did pretty well. In 2007, I graduated 36th in my class. There were 72 students, so I was right in the middle. I am really proud of myself for that. I enjoyed the process enough to not keel over, and at the same time did well enough to have some career opportunities.
After I graduated I went to work in the governor’s office in Cheyenne, where I commuted daily. I liked solving problems from that big picture perspective, and learning from very talented people. I worked with DFS and Workforce Services, and that’s how I connected with Climb. I met Ray, our executive director, and I could see that they were a very effective organization. I fell in love with what they do and how they help women, and I stayed connected with the organization through the years. My job ended because the governor didn’t run again, and I did a couple of short lived jobs for a while until I saw the opening for the Program Director position with Climb. After a couple of back-and-forth-s, I started working for them. It was meant to be.
Tell me about Climb
Climb is a private non-profit organization with offices in Casper, Cheyenne, Gillette, Rock Springs, Jackson, and Laramie. Our mission is to provide job and life skills training and job placing for low income single moms, so they can discover self-sufficiency. We help them address barriers that have been in their way, and help them remove them in a therapeutic, supportive manner. The Climb moms get individual and group counseling, parenting advice, they learn budgeting, problem solving, emotional regulation, communication and relationship skills, how to set boundaries, advocacy, planning, goal setting… but most importantly, they get the confidence and support of a community. Living in poverty as a single mom can be very isolating, but there is power in sitting with nine other moms and seeing that you are not alone.
That sounds fantastic! How does it work?
The program runs twice a year, and we work with ten women at a time. The application process is pretty rigorous since we want to make sure the moms are doing the program at a time when it will be the most successful in their lives, since they can only participate once. Sometimes a mom may not be ready at the time she applies. Maybe she is nearly sober or in the middle of a bad custody situation, she may not be ready for the change or have the time for it… it’s a 14 week training with 6 weeks of work experience afterwards, so if they are accepted into the program, they need to be able to make a roughly 6 months commitment to Climb. And to themselves.
Every cycle is different so the kind of skills we teach varies: moms going through the Office Careers training need support on how to dress professionally and maybe how to navigate a small office where they are under constant scrutiny. We just finished a Mechanical and Service Technology Training and those moms learned how to work with sheet metal and how to install and troubleshoot heating and ventilation units. Hands-on labor. But also, we taught them how to work alongside men and show up as a woman in a male dominated industry. Our next training is a Commercial Driver training, which will allow those moms to get a license to drive buses, beverage distribution, garbage, and water trucks, and to do mail delivery.
How can Climb offer all that support in such a short period of time?!
The Climb team is small; in our Laramie office right now there is me, Manuela Hofer-Mcintyre which is our Assistant Program Director, and we are in the process of hiring a part-time health care provider. But we have a team of local professionals and community members helping it all happen. They teach the classes and conduct mock interviews based on the particular training we are offering, and we try to bring males in to teach and talk to our moms, since many of these women haven’t experienced men in safe situations before, either emotionally or physically. Climb creates a safe place for moms to explore who they are, what functional relationships are, and how to set boundaries before having to test those skills in the workplace.
How do you decide what training to offer?
We decide based on the jobs that are available in our community at any given time. The economy changes; for example, wages and job offers in office careers are down now. So we want to offer trainings that will give the moms the most opportunities. Lots of research goes into it, and into a lot of what we do. Last year was Climb’s 30th anniversary, and we have been keeping track of some statistics for all these years. The moms go through a mental health assessment at the beginning and at the end of the training, and our data shows that women are finding huge growth in their executive functioning as they learn to calm the chaos in their lives, make decisions, and plan for the future. For the first 2 years after they graduate we contact them every 3 months, and monitor their wages, get feedback about the program and what it did for them, what they’ve learned… We found a consistent increase in wages and a decrease in state dependency after participants go through Climb’s program. The data not only shows that the program is effective, but also shows organizations and individuals funding us that we are solving real problems, doing something for which there is a need, and doing it in a way that doesn’t waste taxpayer or donor dollars.
Where does your money come from?
The local team of professionals teaching life skills is mostly volunteers. We receive money from private donors, and funding from both the state and federal governments. We just received a grant from the USDA, which administers the Food Stamps program, because our statistics show a decrease over time in the use of food stamps by Climb graduates. The USDA sees the value in investing in these women in the front end because it will save the Food Stamps program money down the line. We have been recognized many times as one of top 10 organizations in the country to lift families out of poverty.
Is that the goal of the women that come to Climb?
Their shared goal is a long term career. Within that, every mom defines success differently: a higher salary, confidence to leave a relationship, being able to move out of their parent’s house… they all get different things from our programs. And this is why Climb is different from other job training programs: it is personalized, and helps each women work through their own hurdles. They come to Climb in search of a job, but end up discovering things they didn’t know they’d find about themselves. Along the way their priorities change and they find their voices and confidence.
Do you see a clear need, especially today, for women advocates helping other women find their voices?
I am passionate about supporting women and building strong female relationships. But this is not just a women’s job. My dad is a huge women’s champion; he encouraged my sister and me to make our voices heard and showed us how to do it. I am so grateful for that. The older I get, the more I realize how systematized and accepted the current perception of women as being invisible is. We don’t talk about it and yet it’s so real. The more I deal with voiceless women the more I see it. Supporting women to succeed without having to stop being who they are is important to me. I want to help moms find their voice so they can be successful in their jobs and lives long term.
Why just moms? What about single dads?
There are a number of programs for dads out there, modeled on the Climb model. Father Factor and Dad Making a Difference are just a couple. But research shows that most families in Wyoming living in poverty are headed by single moms. Our progress report statistics tell us that 40% of Wyoming single moms with children under the age of 18 live in poverty. That is why we focus on moms, because that’s what our state needs most.
You mentioned you are passionate, and you certainly sound passionate about your role with Climb. What’s your favorite part of the job?
Being a match maker (!) between the moms and potential employers. I care for these women and also for the organizations that work with us to hire them, and I want to set them both up for success. I am on a mission to match the right mom with the right job, and I think I am pretty good at it. I have learned over time to trust my gut; I can’t articulate why I know a good fit when I see it, I just know. I also love supporting the mom when it’s tricky, encouraging her to be self-sufficient in communication with the employer, and if it doesn’t work, figuring out why and what went wrong so it can be better the next time.
And then there are the stories of the women we serve. Like the mom who came to us in her early 50s, with kids almost grown. She barely made it into the program because to qualify you have to have children living in the home or be in a reunification plan. She graduated, and she calls us on the first day of Christmas Break crying because she just got payed 13 dollars and hour to make pancakes for her kids and grandkids. She couldn’t believe that that was her life now. Or the mom that had been homeless for a couple of years before joining the program. She got on her feet through people from her church that helped out and gave her a place to live. She started working with Climb with a 3-week-old baby, she graduated, and she just got her own apartment 2 blocks away from her baby’s daycare and 3 blocks away from her work. She has a job with benefits now! In six months she went from being homeless to making thirteen dollars an hours with benefits. I could talk about Climb as an organization all day, but those are the stories that keep me going.
You are so dedicated to these moms. Are you a mom yourself?
I am an occasional foster mom. My husband is a school counselor, and there was a kid at his school that had been living in a crisis center for 7 months. That’s not a place designed to have kids for that long, and we wanted to help him. So we went through the certification process and got him to come to live with us. He was in our house for almost a year, and we have fostered other teenage kids since. We don’t have any foster children living with us at the moment, but we did it for 3, 4 years.
It seems to me that it has to be such a calling. I have biological children and sometimes, when it gets really tough, the commitment I made when I brought them into the world is what keeps me going. How do you do it?
I don’t even think about the fact that they are not my biological children; we signed up for this and it is our responsibility to show up. It is beautiful, infuriating, hard, sad… I get mad at the system at times for making it so complicated. I’m a maternal person; I have an instinct for it and like helping kids. Because we work with older kids the relationship is different than what foster parents of younger children experience. Earning they trust is tricky, but so fulfilling when you get there. It is a mixed bag, confusing, complicated... It has changed the dynamics of our marriage and bonded us in a special way. No other experience in my life has shaped me like being a foster mom has. It has forced me to get to a healthy place in my life, to address things I wasn’t satisfied with but wasn’t dealing with, to come to grips with the reality that there were healthy, stronger, happier places I wanted to go in life. Being a parent to a teen that wasn’t my own child helped me get really authentic really quickly.
Are the places you want to go in life in Laramie? You are not leaving, are you?
I am not planning on it. My father asks me “Why do you live in Laramie? It’s so cold and windy.” And the truth is I can’t express with words the love I have for this community. I like going to the grocery store and finding people you know and love, every single time. Having people to share the hard times and the good times with. Having that kind of support. I am not a good planner; for the most part I just stumble upon things. I it is hard to plan ahead into the future, but I don’t see a need for it right now. I love my career, my people… this place is my home.