CHICAGO -- Millions of women - many of them working moms - have left the workforce during the pandemic, often to shoulder the caregiving responsibilities in their families. But there's a nonprofit on Chicago's West Side that knows empowering young women uplifts entire families and communities at large.
New Moms is a community organization that offers housing, doula and family support services to young mothers. Women aged 16-24 who are pregnant or parenting participate in New Moms' 12-week training program, which includes getting real-world work experience through Bright Endeavors, the nonprofit's social enterprise candle making company.
Sarah-Jayne Ashenhurst, the social enterprise director at Bright Endeavors, said the company's mission has only become more critical due to COVID-19.
"Our participants, who were already experiencing barriers to employment, now have additional layers and layers (of challenges) on top of that," she said. "Child care, which was already difficult for working moms to secure, is impossible when your child care centers are opening and shutting down because of COVID exposures or have limits on the number of kids that can be enrolled at a time."
Bright Endeavors works around the women's child care needs, producing candles between 9:30 a.m.-3:00 p.m. at their West Garfield Park facility. It's the first job for many participants, according to Gabrielle Caverl-McNeal, Bright Endeavors' director of workforce development.
"They really change and grow in building those job skills that they didn't get to exercise prior to being here at Bright Endeavors," she said. "They get to work in community, build social capital (and) get in tune with the executive skills coaching framework that we use throughout our program."
In addition to the hands-on candle making experience, the moms participate in classroom sessions where they work on goal setting, parenting skills and personal financial management.
The program has been a game changer for Maritza, one of the production assistants who enrolled during the pandemic. Maritza didn't have a driver's license or car, but was concerned about risking greater COVID exposure for herself and her 4-year-old daughter if they took public transportation.
"On January 27, I got my first car, and I was able to purchase it all by myself," she said. "I wouldn't be driving it right now if it wasn't for Musa, one of our coaches, pushing me to get my license."
The candle-making process requires patience, which Maritza said has translated into her parenting also.
"I used to not be as patient with (my daughter)," she said. "But now I'm trying to be more patient because she is just four, so she's not gonna know that you can't do certain things or touch certain things."
Another production assistant, Vivi, felt connected to the other participants after only three days in the program.
"I feel like I knew them for a long time," she said. "What I like the most is that you can open up and you can share experiences without being judged."
Vivi had other jobs in the past where she wouldn't be on time or give it her all. But she's already seen a change in herself thanks to Bright Endeavors.
"I feel like every morning when I wake up, I've got something to look forward to," she said. "They make me want to be on top of stuff."
Vivi was early in her pregnancy with her first child and said she had done some things she "wasn't proud of" prior to getting pregnant. But she had great expectations for who she'd be after completing Bright Endeavors' program and becoming a mom.
"The person I'm gonna be after, I can't really say - but I know it's gonna be nothing like the person I was before," she said.
Caverl-McNeal said it's inspiring to see so many major personal transformations within a short period of time.
"They leave much stronger and in tune with what their goals are," she said. "It's really something that we look forward to coming into work every day."
You can buy Bright Endeavors' hand-poured (and signed!) soy candles on their website or at Whole Foods. They're also sold under various private labels at CB2 and boutiques throughout the Midwest.
New Moms/Bright Endeavors is also actively seeking more moms to participate in the program. Find out more information and apply for enrollment on their website.