Two activists who help girls and young women overcome challenges and gain important life skills appeared on this weekend’s Connections to discuss their work. Tanya Torp is program director for Step by Step, a Lexington group that mentors young unwed mothers; and family court attorney Holly Houston is co-founder of Greater Louisville Outstanding Women (GLOW).
Torp says the first action Step by Step takes with its young clients is to “love all over them.” She describes these single mothers, who range in age from 13 to 24, as being in survival mode. They’re trying to care for their child, hold down one or more jobs, put food on the table, and perhaps attend school. Many, according to Torp, are victims of abuse or domestic violence.
“They are resilient, they are strong” Torp says of her clients. “They deal with things that we could never deal with on regular basis – and they’re so young.”
Juggling Time and Money
Torp explains that single mothers often find themselves in a difficult bind: To support their family, they have to work, but then they need transportation and childcare. So they may wind up working multiple jobs just to save enough money to pay those expenses, on top of covering the rent and grocery bills.
Some women have to juggle those responsibilities along with multiple court dates, according to Houston. She fears some mothers may lose a job because they need time off to appear in court. Houston says she’s also seen cases where a woman and her children have to remain in a home with an estranged spouse simply because she can’t afford her own place to live.
The Lexington group Step by Step finds housing and food for the young mothers and children it serves. The program then pairs the mothers with mentors who can provide advice on a range of issues. The mothers also participate in twice-a-month support group meetings where they learn things like how to handle an abusive partner, care for their kids, or apply for jobs, as well as basic money management skills.
Houston says financial literacy is a significant issue for all young women, no matter their socioeconomic background. She says even the private school girls that she and her Louisville Girls Leadership group mentor can benefit from learning about how to avoid predatory lenders, balance a bank account, or not over-extend a credit card.
Healthy Boundaries and Personal Responsibility
Torp rejects the welfare-moms label some people give to her clients. She says Step by Step embraces its young mothers where they are and avoids messages of shame or condemnation. While Torp pledges to do everything she can to help and support her clients, she also gives the young mothers firm boundaries that communicate their role in the recovery process.
“I think the most important thing that’s healthy for them and for us is to tell them, I am not going to work any harder than you are,” Torp says. “I will be there with you every step of the way, but I am not going to work any harder than you.”