Stepping into Brighter Futures

Invest, Dream, Achieve helps women return to school

“My mom is making a better life for me.” 

“I’m supporting my mom because she’s going to have an education.”

Those were some of the sentiments shared this spring by children whose mothers had graduated from and who participate in Invest, Dream, Achieve: a program that began in fall 2018 through a collaboration of the Women’s Fund of Door County and Northeastern Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC).

“The children are so excited that their moms are going to school,” Women’s Fund co-founder Jane Stevenson said. “It’s really cool.”

Invest, Dream, Achieve is a $200,000 grant program for Door County women who want to return to school to create a better life for themselves and their families.

Stevenson said its inspiration was the same dichotomy that underlies the founding of the Women’s Fund: the number of women who are struggling to make ends meet in a community with such beauty and resources. 

The Women’s Fund launched a study in 2016 to discover the pathways to economic security for women. It included interviews with nearly 200 Door County citizens to understand the economic realities facing women on the peninsula and what security would look like to them, Stevenson said.

The collective dream of the participants was to have independence: They didn’t want to look at a pile of bills and wonder which one they’d be able to pay. After working two or three jobs all summer, they wanted to spend time with their kids.

“They didn’t want one unexpected event to devastate their lives,” Stevenson said. “They hoped for a better life, and they wanted to enjoy life.”

That hope was a key component to getting the program off the ground.

Invest, Dream, Achieve is a three-year pilot program designed to help women achieve educational success, career success and financial stability.

One requirement to enter the program is that women must have the ability to save a minimum of $20 each month. A savings account is created for each participant that the Women’s Fund matches up to $60 each month so that participants will have a nest egg when they graduate from the program and begin a career, Stevenson said.

The grant money comes from donations, which she said have come from men and women both inside and outside Door County.

“[When talking to] potential donors about this program, it really excited them,” Stevenson said. “They saw that this kind of a program working with NTWC would really be a way for women to have a better life, have more sustainable work, and it would be better for their children.”

Katie Smullen, an NWTC student-support specialist, was hired to help guide women through the program.

“[Katie] is just a wonderful woman,” Stevenson said. “The women love her; they feel very supported by her; and she just really identifies with them.”

Smullen said her role is to help clear barriers for the participants. She connects them with resources, facilitates meetings, works on budgeting and acts as an agent on the women’s savings accounts to monitor deposits. Sometimes she even acts as a “mama bear” by checking their grades, she said with a laugh.

(From left) Kayla Bosman, Linda Kimpston, Laura Knaapen, Katie Smullen, Amanda Purdy, Rui Zhang, Samantha DeGrave. Photo by Cody LaCrosse of Tandem Photography.

Smullen works with students who are pursuing a variety of subjects, including nursing, welding and IT, and who structure classes and schedules to fit their daily lives. 

Kristin Kallin, a nursing student, attends both in-person and online classes. As a mother of four who also works as a waitress and a nursing home CNA, it can be hard to find the time, but with support from the other women – who may not know each other’s stories but are all working toward the same goal – she feels empowered to make it work, she said.

Smullen oversees 23 women in the program now, plus one who graduated but still attends meetings. They range in age from 20 to 58, and most – though not all – are single, mothers or both.

Smullen said her favorite part of the job is seeing how much these women’s children inspire them.

“It’s good for my kids to see me going back to school and working for something I enjoy, and we all can do homework together,” Kallin said.

It’s that inspiration element that Smullen cherishes – and the small wins. She loves to hear about a student acing a test and seeing her excitement.

Only two women have graduated from the program so far, but Smullen sees that participation already makes a big difference in students’ lives. The program is helping women to learn and save, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint, she said. She thinks it will take another year or two before Door County starts seeing the graduates’ positive outcomes in the community.

“I feel like this group, when they graduate, a lot of them will be leaders in our community,” Smullen said. “I feel like they’re just building community among each other and connecting to resources, and I feel like that’s going to be really beneficial.” 

The Women’s Fund is pleased with the work that’s already been done through Invest, Dream, Achieve, and it’s evaluating the program to see whether it will continue past its three-year pilot phase as is, or tweaked, or with added collaboration within the community.

“So far, we’re just really excited about how well women are doing and the kind of dreams that they think are going to become a reality,” Stevenson said.

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