Sowmya Ramanathan is a 2011 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and served as an intern at Ascend in the fall of 2012.
As Ascend looks at how two-generation programs – which provide opportunities for and meet the needs of vulnerable parents and their children together – can help ensure economic security, we ask: what are the components that really make a two-generation program successful in moving parents and children beyond poverty?
I recently had the privilege of speaking with Eveline Rivers, Founder and Executive Director of Sunshine Cottage in Amarillo, Texas, a program that targets and supports single mothers in obtaining a college degree. Sunshine Cottage comprises a block of purchased homes that come fully furnished to mothers with children who are interested in, and committed to, the pursuit of postsecondary education. The program is currently home to 11 families and 37 children living in houses that suit the family size and needs. The program encourages women to set educational goals and serve as role models for their children and provides other supports including valuable life skills training for mothers; and simultaneously facilitates child enrollment in high-quality early childhood education and engages in longer-term goal setting with older children.
The passion with which Eveline discusses her program is truly contagious. She repeatedly refers to the “sisterhood” the program creates: Sunshine Cottage helps facilitate the building of a community of women in similar life positions, allowing mothers to benefit from shared experience and lean on one another for support. Eveline’s intentional selection of board members willing to personally engage with the mothers the program serves takes this social capital development a step further: certain board members help give mothers tools and connections to individuals who can offer particular skills or ways of thinking as they tackle their education or enter the professional world. Eveline describes her selection of board member Bob Lang based on his willingness to hold trainings in auto mechanics for women whose cars break down. Connections matter, a fact which the Sunshine Cottage actively embraces and works to promote both by fostering a community environment among the mothers and their families and by connecting them with community members actively willing and able to support specific needs.
While the two-generation approach includes social capital as critical in constructing a pathway out of poverty, environment also matters. Eveline’s careful furnishing of each house, “from the throw pillows on the bed to the linens in the closet,” reflects her belief that housing and physical space are important in ensuring family stability. She would even like to be able to provide families with more than one computer so that both children and parents can be online doing homework or accessing resources at the same time. While this model clearly provides parents with a comfortable and nurturing home environment, it leads me to wonder about the feasibility and sustainability of such a model on a larger scale. What would it take to replicate Sunshine Cottage and how could it be done so as to provide the same kind of nurturing environment to a larger population in a cost-effective manner? And how can lessons learned from larger residential initiatives like the Jeremiah Program be useful in teaching us about expansion and scaling?
Through supervision from Eveline herself, the Sunshine Cottage tracks educational outcomes and reaches out to participants after their degree completion to ensure that they have been able to find job opportunities. As the field considers opportunities to scale and replicate programs, Sunshine Cottage is a unique example of how the attentiveness and care of a leader can influence the lives of the families she serves.