Kathryn Thomas, People Helping People's Executive Director, was invited to speak with the Stand Together Foundation on how PHP is working to support Utah women gain successful employment.
How old were you when you figured out life?
The Summer before my senior year of high school was an especially turbulent time. As the oldest of 9 kids, I had huge fights with my parents on a daily basis about the choices I wanted to make versus the life my parents wanted for me, and as a result, one day in the middle of the night, I was plucked from my bed, loaded up into the family station wagon, driven 12 hours to Arizona and dropped off at a wilderness survival program for "troubled kids”. This experience changed the course of my life.
I spent 92 days in the desert. In Arizona. In the summer. Cut off completely from society, living off the land, hiking, hungry, drinking from animal water troughs, sleeping with AND eating rattlesnakes, more hiking, even more rattlesnakes.
When I finally had proven to the counselors that I could be a “good kid”, my parents were able to come pick me up and take me home. I vividly remember showing up 2 weeks after the school year had started to get my yearbook picture taken. It’s a picture that still haunts me to this day. The girl in that picture with long blonde hair, dark black roots, and gaunt cheekbones from the hot Arizona sun was so very sad, feeling betrayed and abandoned, and lost and angry.
My parents had tried to FORCE me to figure out life THEIR way.
So I figured I would prove to them just how ready I was to take charge of my life. Within weeks of coming home, I ran away and shortly thereafter I got pregnant.
Suddenly a forced marriage as a teenager and a question of whether I would even graduate from high school was on the table.
I went from star soccer player with college options, to wife. I was told my decisions would result in a lifetime of “stigma” and that I was going to be a statistic.
That was until my high school counselor pulled me aside one day. "She said, Kathryn, you are capable, you can do anything if you put in the work, you are more than your circumstance, I'll help you but you have to want this for yourself."
She helped me figure out how I could home school and graduate, and even met me at the school to pick up my diploma with my baby boy in tow. She believed in me, and most importantly provided a powerful example of a woman who was a Mom AND worked full time to support her family.
Fast forward 10 years. 3 kids later. A defeated, small version of myself who was again feeling scared and lost. A pending divorce from an abusive man. As a momma, being faced with a difficult decision that would not only change my life, but the lives of my children. I was getting ready to forge a new path as a single mother. No degree. No work history. No money. No confidence. I really didn’t think I could do it.
And then one day in the grocery store I ran into my HS counselor again. She asked about my life, my kids, my marriage. She reminded me that I was strong, and that I wasn’t the first single mom in my small town. She had confidence in me.
I can’t remember her name for the life of me. But I have always remembered what she did for me during 2 very pivotal, scary, transformative moments in my life. How she believed in me and saw potential in me when I had a hard time seeing it in myself.
We all need people like that in our lives, don’t we?
Having people who can see our potential… to point out our abilities, strengths, and qualities in us, is sometimes the little nudge of motivation we need to take that first step forward, to find that courage to change.
My name is Kathryn Thomas. I am the Executive Director of People Helping People. A grass roots non-profit that supports the long term employment success of low income women and single mothers by providing positive role models, mentors, and examples of success.
I understand firsthand the challenges faced by many of our clients as they work towards self sufficiency.
Far too often the terms “poverty,” “welfare mom” or “single mom” come with automatic judgments and stigmas attached to them. Enduring the criticism of others for the choices we make for our families or for ourselves, while finding ourselves in the dire circumstances of survival, can be overwhelming to say the least. I know because I have been there.
And I come from Utah, which has some of the biggest challenges in the country for working moms.
Our state population is more than 50% women, but consistently ranks 50th for income equality.
Utah has the largest wage gap in the nation? That women earn about 30% less than men, and furthermore, that MOMS get 58 cents for every dollar that working DADS earn? This issue is further exacerbated when race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disabilities are considered.
So let me share a story with you about how People Helping People is disrupting this…
Evelyn immigrated to the US from Guatemala to escape the violence in her country and in her home at the hand of her 1st husband. Coming to the states, she quickly realized that she needed a work permit to provide for her son and the grandson she was caring for, and needed to learn English in order to communicate with everyone around her.
As she worked on learning English, and while preparing to take her green card test, Evelyn was working multiple part time jobs, mostly at night, so that she could juggle taking care of her family. But she still wasn’t making enough to pay the bills and had to rely on assistance to make ends meet.
After receiving her green card and passing her English test, she started seeking out better employment opportunities, but still felt incapable, and doubted if she could manage it all herself.
Evelyn learned about People Helping People from her sister and tagged along with her to our annual Single Mothers Seminar and Job Fair. She was determined to find a better job, and after visiting with more than 40 of our employer partners and talking to several PHP clients at the event, learned that by enrolling in our program she would receive the support she so desperately needed and would be surrounded by professionals that would teach her how to navigate the world of work.
She started attending our employment know-how workshops and learning from volunteers how to create a resume that matched the job she wanted, how to talk about and fill in lapses in her work history, and how to put together a financial plan that would guide her towards self-sufficiency.
She worked 1-1 with coaches and mentors, all of whom believed in her ability to be successful and reminded her that she was deserving of success.
Because at PHP, we start by telling each client that we KNOW they can succeed. We focus on what they CAN do and teach them how to reach their full potential in the workplace.
Through the PHP program, Evelyn established a support system, grew her professional network, learned how to tackle her barriers that were preventing her from working successfully head on, and how to communicate her value to employers with confidence. We believed in her until she could believe in herself.
Not only did Evelyn get a job, but she kept that job, and went back to her employer and asked for a raise, then a promotion, and then got another job offer.
She has become entirely self sufficient.
She has paid off all of her debt
She has sent children to college
She has a full time job with great benefits.
She bought her dream car, a maroon Ford Explorer, which she proudly drove to our office the day she purchased it!
She is now an Ambassador of our program, volunteers with new clients, and most recently spoke during our Donor Appreciation event and shared her story.
Evelyn knows that her future is bright and that she will always have ongoing long term support from PHP.
So I’ll ask you again…..At what age did you figure out life? Do we ever figure out life completely?
We are all a work in progress. Success happens over time, not overnight.
Whether you flounder or flourish is always in your hands, you are the single biggest influence in your life.
But we can’t truly achieve anything entirely by ourselves. We all need those people in our lives to remind us that we are worthy… that, despite our circumstances, we have incredible potential.
Just like Evelyn, and the hundreds of women we work with every year at PHP, we all need a support system.
Having a support system is a basic requirement of human existence.
Alone we can do so little; but we can do so much better, together.