February 14, 2020
Hundreds of fragrant, beautifully designed candle tins line the shelves of Bright Endeavors’ otherwise nondescript warehouse in West Garfield Park. The soy candles will end up in high-end grocery and home furnishings stores across the country.
New Moms, which runs Bright Endeavors, supports young Chicago women who are pregnant or parenting. This can be a joyful time but in the best of circumstances, taking care of a young family presents challenges. The young women served by New Moms are starting their families with the challenges of any new parent but have added disadvantages. They are living in poverty and struggling with homelessness. “They’ve had difficulty finding or keeping a job, but they’re motivated because they have a child they want to provide for,” says Laura Zumdahl, president and CEO, New Moms.New Moms helps these young women take advantage of that motivation.
Since 1983, New Moms has offered three pillars of assistance: housing, family support, and job training. Each year, New Moms provides about 80 mothers, ages 24 and under, with classroom sessions two days a week and on-the-job experience through its social enterprise, Bright Endeavors, three days a week. “The young moms practice skills in a real-life employment setting,” Zumdahl says. In the classroom, for example, the participants discuss the importance of showing up on time every day.On the production floor, they have to turn that lesson into a daily reality.
In keeping with its ethos of rigorously and continually improving its services, New Moms has made significant changes to its job-training program in recent years. After consulting with similar programs and culling its own participants’ feedback, New Moms lengthened the program from 12 to 16 weeks. Previously, the work component started after the program’s first month; now, it starts in week two. And while New Moms used to pay participants only for the time spent at Bright Endeavors, this year it also began paying them minimum wage for the classroom time.“We wanted to value that work as well. It’s just as important,” Zumdahl says.
New Moms also enhanced its curriculum. In the past, the curriculum comprised traditional workforce development, like writing a resume. That teaching continues, but New Moms also has learned from cutting-edge research in brain and behavioral science to focus on executive skills—the self-management skills, such as time management and flexibility—that one needs to achieve goals.
Through self-assessment and peer interaction, participants develop selfunderstanding. If a participant has a hard time with the executive skill of task initiation, for instance, she learns to use checklists. “They learn from each other about how to strengthen their executive skills,” says Gabrielle Caverl-McNeal, director of workforce development, New Moms. “It’s not enough to give someone a job for a few months and then expect them to move successfully onto a career path. It takes a lot more than that.”
Participants also use their newfound self-knowledge to identify the careers that would suit their strengths and hopes. A participant who is better with people than with details might forgo a job that involves spreadsheets in favor of a customer-service position.“Sometimes no one has ever had that conversation with them before: ‘What do you want to do? What are your dreams?’ For most of our participants, this is the first time they’ve thought about the kinds of jobs that are out there for them,” Zumdahl says.“They find joy in figuring out they have something to offer the world.”
New Moms helps participants learn to set, track, and achieve their goals. Getting a massive order for thousands of candles can feel overwhelming; dividing that order into smaller components makes it manageable. Likewise, trying to earn one’s GED or find a job can seem impossibly daunting; it’s better to think of those objectives in discrete steps, like first registering for a review course.
When the women graduate, New Moms assists them in finding employment. All but 3 percent land permanent positions, and over half—55 percent—remain in their jobs after a year, as compared to a national average of just 39 percent for similar young adult job-training programs.
New Moms’ participants take satisfaction and pride in a job done objectively well: Bright Endeavors now makes about half a million dollars in annual revenue— a year-on-year growth of 40 percent over the past two years. But the young mothers take something else that will serve them for years to come. “The thing I hear over and over from our participants about what they get out of New Moms is confidence,” Zumdahl says. The satisfaction of that extends to New Moms, too. “We are a place that builds confidence, and there’s great joy in doing that work.”