Must Love Dogs

When Natasha Kirsch (M.P.A. ’14) came to UMKC, she had no prior experience running a nonprofit organization, but every intention of making her dream of helping people break the cycle of poverty come true.

While working on her Master's degree in Public Administration at the UMKC Bloch School of Management, Kirsch was simultaneously participating in the Aaron L. Levitt Social Entrepreneurship Challenge. In the six-month program, Kirsh and others participated in a series of workshops designed to help the challenge participants hone their business ideas. Kirsch says she wrote a business plan from start to finish and presented her project to 300 people at the Kauffman Foundation.

“What this really taught us though was how to write a business plan but also really vetting our idea as we wrote the plan. So it was the research behind what we did that really helped me to get started,” Kirsch says.

Kirsch’s idea?

Well, it went through some changes. But ultimately, it resulted in a nonprofit organization called Empowering Parents to Empower a Child. This change is manifested through a pilot program called The Grooming Project, which teaches animal grooming and so much more. The project assists students who have many barriers to stable employment such as past addiction, criminal records and incomplete education. The program is particularly focused on single mothers and helping people to break the cycle of poverty.

Dog grooming was the perfect choice of trade because wages for groomers average about $19 per hour, Kirsch says. This allows practitioners to achieve a living wage and to work in a family-friendly trade. Kirsch says many of the women used to work two part-time jobs during second and third shifts, which meant they weren’t home to parent their children.

Since many of the people who go through The Grooming Project’s program are on welfare, using food stamps and more, a living wage allows them to achieve independence and, in many cases, to stop relying on assistance programs.

“A living wage and a family-friendly trade are so critical to break the cycle of poverty. For a mom to do parenting, she has to actually be home to parent her kids,” Kirsch says.

Kirsch’s research and hard work is paying off: The first class from The Grooming Project graduated on June 25, 2016. Another graduation for a series of students will be held in October 2017.

“A lot of my students who graduated in June are now completely off welfare,” she says.

Despite the success, Kirsch and her team are realizing there is more work to do. After completing the program, Kirsch says, students need just as much help as before because they are now in a place where they can buy a house, rent an apartment, buy a more reliable car and/or are getting off of food stamps. For Kirsch’s students, this is something completely new and something that, typically, their family members have no experience with either.

“It’s emotional and it’s mentally difficult to try and navigate a whole new system now.”

To help, Kirsch and her team meet with former students once a week and assist them with things like budgeting, reading leases and making major purchases.

“We’re realizing now that it’s kind of a whole other program coming out of this. But that’s part of the success. That’s why we have such a high success rate. I don’t ever want to stop doing that.”