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For those trying to escape the cycle of poverty, the road can be long and frustrating. With few opportunities to earn a living wage, it can seem impossible to find safe and stable housing, reliable transportation and childcare, plus pay for food and heating bills. There are many factors that contribute to the difficulty of rising into the middle class.

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Natasha Kirsch

But a program started by Natasha Kirsch in Kansas City, Missouri, aims to change that. The founder of the nonprofit group Empowering the Parent to Empower the Child (EPEC), Kirsch’s mission is to provide training “in living wage/high demand trades for single parents living in poverty.”  EPEC’s pilot program, The Grooming Project, is an important part of the effort.

The Grooming Project trains participants in animal grooming, a profession in high demand. Once they have completed training, groomers can make an average of $19 an hour, far above the national minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Pet grooming is a profession in which many of the typical barriers to employment, such as previous issues with addiction, criminal records, or an incomplete education, do not stand in the way.

In addition to training people for employment in established salons, it can also be a path to entrepreneurship.

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The program involves more than learning to groom pets. In founding EPEC, Kirsch recognized the complexities of living in — and trying to escape — poverty. Students also learn parenting and budget management skills, and students meet weekly with a mentor to discuss their progress not only in the training program but also to address issues of parenting and household budgeting.

According to Kirsch, the results are impressive. She told Christian Science Monitor, “When they get out of here, they are not getting one job offer – they are getting three.”

While working with nonprofit groups in Kansas City, Kirsch saw the difficulty many single parents face in attempting to overcome barriers to employment, and she began to search for high-demand job opportunities in which the typical barriers would not be an issue. Kirsch’s mother, a dog groomer, mentioned that her company was in need of trained groomers, and the idea for The Grooming Project was born.

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The training begins by addressing the students’ immediate needs: how to get the electric bill paid or how to ensure their children get dinner. Some of the students are homeless, and the program makes an effort to “be that glue that gets all of the organizations to talk to each other.”

So far, the program has placed 100% of graduating students in jobs.

Kirsch has plans to open a second school in Kansas City next year and aims to expand to 10 states over the next 10 years.

She says the change she sees in her students after they’ve gone through the training program is remarkable. “They have been treated so poorly their entire lives that there is no dignity, there is no self-worth,” she says. By the end of the program, she notes, “the fog has cleared.”

Some of the students can’t read, which is not a requirement to be a dog groomer, and many have felony convictions, but that’s okay, says Kirsch. “The dogs don’t care that they went to prison.”

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