While struggling to make ends meet at her teaching job, local mom Heather Burke decided that it was time to go back to college to improve life for she and her daughter.
Inspired by the caring and helpful nurses that she met while pregnant, Burke discovered her true calling to be in nursing, and enrolled in a dual program with Pima Community College and Northern Arizona University. For Burke, and many others like her, the decision to go back to school is daunting when solely responsible for raising a child and being the head of household.
Along with a lot of hard work and dedication, Burke's education goals have been made a reality by Helping Hands Tucson, an organization which provides assistance and support to single moms trying to further their education. The program is now changing its name to Single Mom Scholars and expanding to help more moms via integration into Interfaith Community Services.
This year alone, the organization has worked to help roughly 20 moms, though there are more that still need help. There are currently 60 moms on the waiting list. By integrating with ICS, the program will have the necessary resources to help a larger number of women.
"Our goal is to eliminate obstacles that are unique to single moms to provide a network of support where we can bring in different forms of education," said Lia Pierse, executive director of the program. "We interviewed five different organizations and ICS just seemed like the perfect fit."
ICS has over 100 partnerships, but including Single Mom Scholars is the first full integration, which Pierse hopes will continue to expand.
Pierse said the integration of the program "can be a model about how nonprofits need to work together to partner and build," explaining that there are many nonprofits that often have similar goals with similar audiences.
"One way to break the cycle of poverty is to empower single moms," said Pierse, a single mom who put herself through college, "and we just want to help." And help they certainly have, according to Burke.
"I cannot emphasize enough the impact that the program has had on us," Burke said. "It has been key for me and my family."
The program not only provides single moms with scholarships, but also includes things like auto services, dental services and holiday gifts, depending on important factors like financial need and grade point average (GPA) at select Arizona universities.
Burke explained that it is sometimes extremely difficult to accept help, but that it is necessary.
"I don't know what it is about single moms that makes us so dang independent, if it's in our nature, or if it's nurture that we have to be that way," Burke said, "but we need to learn to accept help because it's needed. Yesterday I got my check and it paid for gas and food."
Burke explained that she accepted a computer that the program gave her, and she felt slightly guilty because she had one at the time.
"But guess what? It broke, and the computer I am using right now is the one they gave me," she said.
The program also coordinates events for the mothers and their children, such as a recent self-defense martial arts workshop, and the upcoming Strut for Success fashion show to model professional clothes provided by the YWCA and children's clothes from Wings for Women, two partnered organizations.
Burke and Pierse both said they are working together to combat the common misconception that single moms are asking for handouts and not working hard— one of the reasons the program name is changing.
"These women are not slackers," Pierse said. "They are doing everything they can to make their life better for their kids."
Burke explained the difficulties on top of the norms of parenting with the added obstacle of attending university.
"Sometimes I am neglecting my daughter to study and I feel terrible," Burke said. "But I hope that this will teach her the value of hard work, and that it will pay off for us."
Burke is currently on track to graduate in December, and her 11-year-old, fifth-grade daughter supports her mom with hugs and chocolate cookies.
Tirion Morris is a Univeristy of Arizona journalism student and Tucson Local Media intern.