Kenita Pierce-Lewis founded H.O.P.E., Inc. so that single parents wouldn’t have to earn their college education the way she did.
Juggling parental responsibilities, work and college courses, it took her 10 years to get her bachelor’s degree in business administration.
H.O.P.E., which stands for Helping Other People be Empowered, helps low income single parents obtain college degrees by providing rental and childcare assistance, connections to community resources, financial advising, counseling resources and success coaching.
“Statistics show the number one reason students don’t finish their college education is financial stress,” says Kenita. “We focus on single parents who work and don’t qualify for government assistance but need help to provide for their children and plan for a better future.”
The Jackson EMC Foundation grant targets childcare and housing costs for H.O.P.E. clients who receive up to $100 a week in childcare assistance and up to $400 a month in rent when lack of either puts acquiring a college degree at risk, according to Kenita, whose own college degree was delayed because she couldn’t afford childcare.
“This enables students to focus on their academics without the anxieties of shelter loss and childcare issues,” she says. “With this investment, parents not only increase their earning potential, but they also increase the likelihood that their children will pursue higher education.”
Based in Duluth, H.O.P.E. helped its first two participants in 2011. “We had a budget of $11,000 and helped two families,” says Kenita. “In 2018, our annual budget was $118,000, and we had 15 students in the program.”
H.O.P.E. has served 53 families since 2011. Of the 27 participants who have graduated from college, most have used their degree to increase their income by an average of $20,000.
“Having a college degree enables you to increase your salary. That’s important to our clients, who typically come here making less than $25,000 a year,” says the director. “We have a single dad, our first male participant, who recently graduated from college. He has doubled his salary, and now he donates to the program.”
While many charitable organizations provide one-time assistance with rent or childcare, what sets H.O.P.E. apart is that it continues to help with rent and childcare until clients have their college diploma in hand.
“The goal is for our clients to graduate without massive debt,” says Kenita, who held a high-paying executive job in downtown Atlanta before switching gears to found H.O.P.E.
“It’s the best thing I could be doing because it changes lives,” says the woman who struggled a decade to get her degree. “Sometimes our storms, our difficult times, can be a catapult to a blessing. If I hadn’t been a single parent, I wouldn’t have known the need.”
She credits the Jackson EMC Foundation for helping H.O.P.E. get off the ground and is thankful for its continued support.
“The Jackson EMC Foundation grants have been a blessing,” she says. “It was one of the first foundations that believed in us and our vision. I thank them from the bottom of my heart for believing in H.O.P.E.”
CLIENT IMPACT: TAMIKA
Tamika had an associate’s degree in early childhood education and a good job with the DeKalb County School System a few years ago. But when the school lost its Title 1 funding, she lost her job.
“I had enough savings to live for six months, but then my savings was depleted,” she recalls. “I saw the walls caving in.” She fell behind on her rent, was evicted, and ended up living at Rainbow Village, a Duluth apartment community that helps homeless families transition into permanent housing.
Going back to school to obtain a bachelor’s degree so she could better provide for her family was her No. 1 priority, and H.O.P.E. helped her meet that goal, according to Tamika. “While residing at Rainbow Village, I met Kenita Pierce-Lewis of H.O.P.E.,” she says. “She was my backbone. Anytime I ran into something and folded, she was there to pick me up.”
Rainbow Village provides meeting space for H.O.P.E. Inc. and the two nonprofits partner with their Hand-in-Hand program. Tamika was one of the first two participants in the program which debuted in 2014 with individuals from Rainbow Village accepted into H.O.P.E. Tamika graduated two years later from DeVry University with her bachelors in Technical Management and now works as an elementary school teacher with Walton County School System.
“I wouldn’t have been able to make it without H.O.P.E.,” says Tamika. “I was making $9 an hour as a certified nursing assistant. Now, thanks to H.O.P.E. helping me get my degree and build up my credit, I own a home in Loganville and my oldest daughter plans to go to college.”
The mother of five feels confident her younger children will follow suit and thanks the nonprofit for pointing them in that direction. “Coming here, you feel the love,” says Tamika. “You won’t be the same when you walk out of this program.”