Natasha Kirsch believes that a living wage does more than provide people with money.
That’s why she founded Empowering the Parent to Empower the Child (EPEC), a non-profit that helps young mothers in poverty find higher-paying jobs and become self-reliant in the process. And to achieve that mission, Kirsch is kickstarting an effort that not only creates better-paying jobs but also cultivates skilled trades for a growing, four-legged market.
In January, Kirsch launched “The Grooming Project” school, a program that teaches at-risk, single mothers how to groom dogs to help the women find paths out of poverty, crime and, at times, abuse. In addition to creating talent for an in-demand trade — there are more than 150 pet salons in the metro — Kirsch said that the work training her program provides offers women with confidence.
“Having a skilled trade gives people a power,” Kirsch said. “And with that power, provides them dignity.”
Kirsch has carried this belief of empowerment with her throughout her career. After graduating from the University of Iowa, she moved to Washington D.C. and started a child care center in 2003. Kirsch eventually moved to Kansas City to pursue a master’s degree at University of Missouri-Kansas City and worked at the Kansas City Healing House, a home for addiction recovery. As her passion for eliminating generational poverty grew via the Healing House, she hoped to tackle the problem with her own venture.
The daughter of a professional dog groomer, Kirsch frequently heard that her mother struggled to find employees. After researching more, she found that not only is grooming an industry with high demand in the area, but that the closest grooming school was three hours away.
“I thought ‘Hey there’s a huge demand for this, and the women I work with need jobs,’” Kirsch said. “I put two and two together.”
Students who are accepted to the 23-week grooming program also learn more about parenting. Kirsch said students study the value of active parenting, higher education, budget management and nurturing skills. Each student is paired with a mentor who helps them once a week, and eventually an internship opportunity at a commercial grooming salon.
The typical groomer makes $19 per hour, which Kirsch said is typically a significant boost in family income. Grooming is also a profession in which people with criminal records or incomplete education can find employment. It also could allow for graduates to become entrepreneurs and launch their own grooming business or find a job with one of the metro’s many salons.
“The biggest problem is low-self esteem. They don’t aim high enough.” – Natasha Kirsch
The Grooming Project just graduated their first class of six students, and have nine enrolled for classes starting Aug. 15. The organization awards full scholarships to each student, which Kirsch said typically lives below the poverty level, is on food stamps, without a car and has three to four young kids.
Since launching the program, however, Kirsch has learned the biggest challenge is toppling her students’ impressions of themselves.
“The biggest problem is low-self esteem,” Kirsch said. “They don’t aim high enough. And even if they could, if they’ve messed up before, nobody is willing to give them a second chance,” says Kirsch. “What happens is that when people grow up in poverty and are in that situation, when they’re adults that’s how they end up raising their kids.”
“One of the coolest parts for me has been watching complete strangers help me get this started and they’ve become good friends in the process.” – Natasha Kirsch
Kirsch is focusing on ways that The Grooming Project can secure funding for the program’s tuition reimbursement, so they can accept more students in the future. EPEC has currently raised over half a million dollars so far, and needs to raise $6,000 per student to cover the cost of tuition. In two years, Kirsch hopes that the grooming school can become self-sustaining through individual donations, corporate giving, grants and annual fundraisers.
Kirsch touts Kansas City and its tight-knit community as the reason why her startup nonprofit was able to succeed. The City of Kansas City, Mo. invested $100,000 in EPEC last year, which helped Kirsch accelerate the program. EPEC currently has three staff members, but depends upon the help of 30 volunteers.
“It’s amazing who is connected to who, and it’s easy to kind of spread the word,” she said. “One of the coolest parts for me has been watching complete strangers help me get this started and they’ve become good friends in the process.”
Kirsch said another obstacle for the Grooming Project was trying to get something started based on only a vision. But that vision seems to be quickly becoming reality.
“This is the first for-profit or non-profit that I have worked for where I’ve gotten to see such major change so quickly,” Kirsch said. “I had a student and her kid who were homeless when they started my program, and in six months I’ve watched her go from having nothing — no home, no food, her kid wasn’t even in school and she was supposed to be in 2nd grade — to now she’s in school, they have a house, they have furniture and she has a job making good money. That’s been pretty amazing.”