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Thu, Sep 27, 2012

Audalee McLoughlin, President & CEO of New Moms, Inc. [Left], Cheryl Darling [Center] and Alderman Emma Mitts, 37th Ward. Photo: Matt Smith, DFSS

When Cheryl Darling was 17 and the homeless mother of a 1-year-old daughter, the social services that helped her were “mainly having a home, being able to have someone to bounce ideas off of about the future and setting expectations and goals.”

Darling became pregnant at 16 and eventually moved out because she and her mother both wanted to be in charge of their own households. She stayed four months at another shelter before turning 18 and moving to New Moms Inc. on the West Side.

Now 32, Darling visited the New Moms construction site at 5317 W. Chicago Ave. on August 23. She introduced Mayor Rahm Emanuel, (whom she described as “someone who is tireless and driven”) before Emanuel himself launched the new Chicago Plan 2.0 to end homelessness.

“The woman you saw standing before you, we knew was the woman inside this girl,” said Audalee McLoughlin, president and CEO of New Moms since 2004 and Darling’s employment training coordinator there years ago. “She was young but so determined and willing to work hard for anything she wanted. That was why she was able to get her high school diploma, able to start college, get jobs and keep jobs. She just needed some help to get from where she was to where she is today.”

Darling graduated about six months late from Foreman High School on the northwest side and the day afterward started a $9 an hour job as an administrative assistant in the audiovisual department of the Chicago Hilton and Towers. After one year at New Moms (instead of the usual two) she found a two-bedroom apartment for $525 a month and moved out on her own. She later did more temp work, attended Harold Washington College, and worked at more hotels in an attempt to move up until she got her dream job of conference services manager.

After 9/11 when fewer people were traveling, she followed her original passion for IT and became a client technical analyst at ADP, the payroll company. She stayed there three years and then landed a job as client application support analyst at Chase Bank. Now at JP Morgan Chase for four years, she completed her bachelor’s degree in computer science a year ago and works in operations delivery from her far northwest suburban home.

“I have four weeks vacation, all national holidays. It’s perfect for me and my family,” she said. In addition to her 16-year-old daughter, she has 11-year-old twins and a 10-year-old son. “They treat me very well. It’s a very good company. I went from nothing to a lot, to making really good money. I have a new car, a nice home. Everything’s great.”

What do single parenting teens need?

“They need support, always support,” Darling said. “The Number Two thing is education. If you are not educated, you can’t make smart decisions. At 18 the support I needed was someone staying on top, someone pushing me to reach my goals, telling me how important I am. A cheerleader. That I am smart enough, I am good enough that I believe it when they say I can be all I want to be.”

Teen moms in Darling’s era had more stability, McLoughlin said. Usually they lived with parents or grandparents until their homelessness was caused by some “trigger:” a death in the family, the loss of a job, the girl’s pregnancy.

In the last eight years or so, McLoughlin said she has seen a shift. Between 40 and 50 percent of the participants in their program have never lived anywhere but a shelter or as a squatter in an abandoned building. The light bulb went off for her a couple years ago when eight vacuum cleaners burned up in a couple weeks’ time; girls in the program had never known a stable home so they didn’t realize vacuum cleaners needed bags.

The reason is, “obviously the economy but I think families are living even closer to the edge than they ever did. More families headed by women are living in poverty and we see a lot of kids who just really don’t have a positive parent influence in their life, for lots of reasons: substance abuse, poverty, lack of education, illness.

“There are times when the grandmother of the babies we serve will be involved with a man who doesn’t want her child and grandchild living in the house,” McLoughlin continued. “Sometimes [the teen moms] are living with the father of the child and their family and it gets too crowded.”

One 18-year-old mom was living with her mother, who became seriously ill and died. The teen took custody of her 10-year-old sister. “Imagine trying to grieve, raise your own child, get an education and cope with the grief of your little sister,” McLoughlin said.

Moving around has caused gaps in their education, so 80 percent of New Moms have dropped out of school, and 40 percent read at 5th grade level or below. “We test them to see their education level and we work with them. They have to read at the 8th grade level to take the GED. Some go to alternative high school, some to regular high school. We try to support them in obtaining their high school education the way they want to.”

Another program offers training in resume writing, interviewing skills and dressing, using computers and conflict resolution in the workplace. New Moms’ social enterprise, “Bright Endeavors,” is an eight-week practicum that allows the participants to earn money manufacturing, packaging and shipping eco-friendly bed and bath products. The housing program is for young people age 18 to 24, ideally for two years, or longer if the participant needs to complete a goal before moving out on her own.

Last December, New Moms broke ground on a $12.5 million building on the site of the former 15th district police station, vacant for nearly four years. With the help of Ald. Emma Mitts (37th ward) the organization paid the City $1 for the site. It raised $250,000, matched by a family foundation, as well as federal HOME funds, Neighborhood Stabilization funds, money from the Federal Home Loan Bank and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The units will feature ground floor offices around an interior courtyard, “a protected area where kids can play safely and moms don’t have to worry about whether a stray bullet is going to kill their child,” McLoughlin said. There will be 30 studios for moms with one child and 10 more one-bedroom apartments for pregnant moms who entered the program with a child. She said the 40 units of new supportive housing will double New Moms’ capacity and increase Chicago’s resources for this population by one third.

Suzanne Hanney, StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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