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South Jordan Journal

#KeepMomInSchool—even when a pandemic makes that harder than ever

Mar 30, 2021 11:06AM ● By Alison Brimley

Freedom for Resilient women is currently fundraising for #KeepMomInSchool, a campaign which so far has raised less than $10,000 of its just $1 million goal. “I have watched so many ridiculous campaigns achieve ridiculous results,” said founder Lisa Sledge. “I don’t think that I’m asking too much.” (courtesy of Lisa Sledge)

By Alison Brimley | [email protected] 

Once upon a time, Lisa Sledge was the mother of two young children, recently divorced and working full-time as a high school English teacher. 

“I couldn’t pay daycare expenses for two children without government assistance,” she said. 

She didn’t want the rest of her life to be a struggle to make ends meet. She wanted her kids to have little luxuries: piano lessons, braces. 

So she enrolled in law school at the University of Utah. University personnel were supportive of her unique challenges as a single parent attending a demanding program. Her professors welcomed her kids to class when she couldn’t find child care. Yet she calls those three years the hardest of her life. 

“When I finally made it to the end, I’d passed the bar, I thought, ‘How many women are ever able to make it to this moment?’” Sledge said. “‘How many are able to look around and see that this thing they had wanted to do—how many were actually able to make it work?’”

She found that number was dismally low: of single women who begin either an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree, only 8% complete their degree within six years. The truth may be even more bleak than that: of that 8%, Sledge points out, we don’t know how many are actually able to pay off their debt or save for retirement. We don’t know how many enter careers plagued by a wage gap, where women need a graduate degree to make as much as a man who holds a bachelor’s degree.  

“I don’t know that they’re actually OK,” she says.

Sledge wasn’t content to let other single parents struggle through their education the way that she had. Just after securing her first job as a full-time attorney, she began working to start a nonprofit she would call Freedom for Resilient Women. 

FRW operates on Lisa’s understanding that single moms need “more than a one-time scholarship” to get through school. There’s still the cost of rent, child care, not to mention the need for a network of emotional and moral support. Despite the many existing nonprofits that exist to assist single parents, Lisa says, “I felt like nobody really understands what single moms need.”

Sledge’s own experience showed her how little many people understand of the reality of parenting as a single woman. Many people told her, “You chose to go to law school; that’s crazy, that’s extreme. You should have stuck with your bachelor’s.” Many don’t realize that women in general tend to choose lower-paying jobs, like Sledge had. Others told her she shouldn’t go to school because she would lose the government aid that allowed her to pay for child care. 

But remaining in her situation wasn’t an option. 

“I don’t like living on someone else’s dime,” she said. “I want to live the way I want to live.” She wants other women to have those options as well. 

In exchange for a monthly membership fee of less than $7 a month, FRW offers access to financial aid for mothers in school that can be used on rent, utilities, child care and more. The membership also offers access to the FRW Mentorship Series, where professionals volunteer their time for 20- to 30-minute sessions on topics such as academic planning, parenting and navigating the different types of financial aid available to students. Using these recorded presentations, single mothers can access the resources they need at times that fit their schedules

FRW also offers a Resilience Award to single mothers in the program who have graduated and hold a job in their field of study. This award comes in the form of a payment to their student loan servicer.

In December, FRW was able to give its first financial aid, paying two months’ rent for a single mom of five kids attending Weber State. “It was so exciting to finally help someone,” Sledge said.

The path to offering its first aid package was a rocky one for FRW. Sledge graduated from law school in May of 2019 and passed the bar in October 2019. Right away she began to lay the groundwork for FRW. In March 2020, FRW was officially incorporated, but the timing was less than ideal, as COVID began to upend the lives of people across the country.

“Kids stayed home, and people were losing jobs, typically low-paying jobs,” Sledge said. “Single moms were dropping out of school in phenomenal numbers before. Now, we’ll be lucky if any of them graduate.”

Much has been said about the impact COVID-19 has had on mothers in the workforce. Since February 2020, 2.3 million women have left the workforce. Whether due to layoffs or ongoing closures of schools and daycares forcing mostly women to stay home with children, the drop brings women’s participation in the workforce to a 33-year low. Less discussed, however, are the COVID-specific challenges faced by mothers in school. 

FRW’s current campaign, #KeepMomInSchool, aims to raise $1 million in aid for single parents pursuing education. 

It’s a goal Sledge calls “insanely ambitious,” but she believes it is possible. The funds will go toward “immediate crisis relief” for moms who are struggling financially even more than before. “Right now, people can’t be evicted, but once that ends, everything they back owe will be due at once. If you’re worried about that, you can’t focus on school.”

Why is keeping moms in school so important, not just during a pandemic but always? Because, Sledge said, a single mother who attempts to earn a degree and drops out—whether because of financial or emotional hurdles—will be worse off than if she had never tried. Many end up with piled-up student loans, made even more difficult to pay back due to their time away from the workforce. “This will ruin them,” Sledge says. “They will be punished for trying.”

And she’s confident others will see the problem here. 

“It’s just a matter of recognizing how deserving these hardworking moms are of our help,” she said. “I don’t think we really intend to take single mothers and put them back in their place and tell them, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t make it.’ I think every American wants to see those moms succeed.”

For that success to materialize, though, it will take more than just a donation. First, Sledge said existing nonprofits have to unite. 

“We have made ourselves more visible so the women who need help can find the help when they need it,” she said. Sledge reports several experiences after graduating from law school where representatives from nonprofits told her, “We wish we’d known about you. We could have helped.” All she could say was, “I wish you’d known about me too.” 

Currently, there are resources available for struggling single moms, but because nonprofits have to conserve their small budgets for aid rather than advertising, there is often a disconnect between the resources available and the women who need them. 

That’s why one of FRW’s current projects is creating a database of existing nonprofits for single mothers to easily use and connect with help. The database will cost $30,000 to $40,000 to complete, Sledge estimates. But once it’s done, mothers will be able to more easily find the type of aid that they need, from scholarships to mental health services. 

“To have them be able to log in and search for the exact help they need—to find that help in their area—would be a miracle to so many,” she said. 

FRW is currently at work to find a donor to cover the cost of creating this database. 

And for schools who want to create an environment where single parents can succeed, Sledge has one recommendation: a play area. She credits the playroom in a study area at the University of Utah with “saving her life.” It wasn’t fancy—just an “empty room where people brought used toys” and where her children could play while she met with her study group. But it made all the difference on the frequent occasions when Sledge couldn’t make childcare arrangements.

“We’re moving on from this idea that only young, unmarried, childless people will seek education,” she said. “We’re leaving this behind us.” 

Though the “brutal” years of law school are behind her, Lisa Sledge (and her family) are still hustling. “I am so tired,” she said. On top of being a parent, she is trying to learn how to be an attorney and run a nonprofit. When her kids are away—either asleep in the evenings or at their dad’s house, where they go every other weekend, Sledge said, “I burn the candle at both ends.” 

But someone has to do it. Sledge is motivated by understanding “the amount of courage it takes to attempt something as crazy as pursuing a higher education while you have little, tiny children and you are alone. Even if you are lucky enough to have a coparent who shares responsibility—and I was lucky—it is brutal.” 

But in the end, if single parents want to get off of government aid, the only option is to enhance their earning power through education. 

“I did three years of intense poverty,” she said. “I came out the other side, and now I can pay my bills each month.”

It feels good. “Maybe we could even take a vacation someday,” she said with a laugh.