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Breaking patterns that derail their lives

Cash rewards motivate single parents to improve

The Career Family Opportunity program is helping Jessica McLeod stick to her goals. The Career Family Opportunity program is helping Jessica McLeod stick to her goals. (Barry Chin/ Globe Staff)
By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / February 16, 2010

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Jessica McLeod, a former drug user who had lost everything, sat with a group of counselors in a South Boston meeting room recently, huddled over a pile of papers. Together, the group was setting up a plan to dig her out of poverty.

A list emerged: Get a job, pay off old debts, enroll in nursing classes. Deadlines were set. And then another ingredient was added: cash incentives.

Each time McLeod, 32, meets one of her goals, she will get a small bonus in a novel program being tried at four South Boston housing developments. The Career Family Opportunity program gives 19 single parents anything from $50 for showing up for a doctor’s appointment to $500 for finishing a year of college. Organizers hope the rewards will help motivate women like McLeod to take many small steps toward a life free of poverty and welfare.

“I’m blessed,’’ said McLeod, who has received $650 in the program so far. “I have support.’’

Launched last June by the advocacy group Crittenton Women’s Union, the program, which includes one man, provides participants with mentoring, workshops, peer groups, and other counseling help over five years.

By then, participants are expected to have a career path and a job that pays enough for them to take care of their families without public assistance.

If, by the end of the five years, they have put $3,425 in the bank, the program adds to it for a total of $10,000.

“We are helping people create a product - and that product is self-sufficiency,’’ said Judy Parks, Crittenton’s director of new programming.

Those who slip up are given a second chance, but those who consistently fail to meet the program’s goals are asked to leave.

The program is meant to help participants overcome the hopelessness and short-term gratification that can derail long-term goals and leave people stuck in a cycle of poverty.

The cycle is especially powerful in Massachusetts, where high rents and expensive food make basic living expenses add up to a figure that’s three times the national poverty level, program organizers said.

“The idea is that over time, these women can use these tools to help learn how to keep them on track,’’ said Beth Babcock, president of the Crittenton Women’s Union. “The women we are serving have lives that are consumed with immediate problems.’’

With a little financial incentive, women participating in the program said, they have something to work toward. Some who had dropped out of school are in college. Others who had not worked are now employed. Many are budgeting and sharing their ideas with their children and peers.

Ask Norma Fajardo. The 40-year-old single mother took advantage of the program after seeing a flier in her Old Colony Bay housing development, which she calls a prison.

She’s been aching to get out since moving there 14 months ago after she and her boyfriend broke up. She’d like to own her own home one day to raise her son, but an apartment will do.

“Since we’ve started, I’ve made almost $900,’’ she said. “It’s really just small goals. . . . The incentives for me are what made this different.’’

Michelle Feliz, a 34-year-old mother of two, said she also wants to buy a house in the next five years but needs to get a few things straight. She’s been taking workshops on repairing her credit, budgeting, and saving.

“This program is like the friend you have when you need a little extra cash,’’ said Feliz, who would not say how much she’s earned so far. “It’s the friend that is always there.’’

In a warm meeting room in West Broadway, McLeod, her sunglasses holding back her highlighted auburn hair, talks about her past. She’s a wife who lost her husband to divorce, a mother who lost custody of her two older children, and a woman who lost her youth to substance abuse.

She was living in a shelter three years ago when she discovered she was pregnant again, she said. She got clean there, and has been fighting her way back since.

The CFO program, she said, tackles every aspect of her life - employment, education, debt management, even her well-being.

“It seems easy to give up,’’ said McLeod, who lives in the Mary Ellen McCormack development. “There are times when I said that I can’t deal with it. . . . What this program teaches you is to keep persevering.’’

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com.