Carlos Chavez/The Arizona Republic

by Michelle Ye Hee Lee – Dec. 2, 2010 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

College life isn’t always conducive to single mothers, who must juggle classes, homework, jobs and motherhood.

But a helping hand can make a big difference in a single mother’s daily life: someone to fix her car when it breaks as she’s on the way to pick her child up from school, or someone to lend her a laptop if she can’t afford one.

That is where Helping Hands for Single Moms, a non-profit organization, steps in. The group provides scholarships to help the 50 low-income single mothers enrolled in the program graduate from college. Women can use the $255 monthly stipend for whatever they need to help them finish their degrees.

It’s one of more than 130 agencies supported by the annual Season for Sharing campaign. Last year, the campaign raised about $2.86 million to assist Arizonans in need.

Helping Hands for Single Moms began in 2001. Since then, 32 women have graduated from college, and the average annual salary of those moms is $42,600, said Chris Coffman, the program’s executive director.

In addition, the organization has 47 community partners that offer a slew of in-kind services, such as auto and computer repair, AAA membership, medical and dental assistance, carpet cleaning and even tickets to Phoenix Suns games for the family.

Shawna Harrison, 35, graduated from Mesa Community College last year with an associate degree in nursing. Helping Hands for Single Moms focuses on the mom, knowing that her life revolves around her children, said Harrison, who has two sons.

In-kind services help clear obstacles that could set a mom back in pursuing her degree, Harrison said. Even a flat tire can create a ripple effect.

In order to stay with the program, women must have at least one child younger than 11, attend college, take a minimum of nine credit hours a semester, maintain at least a 2.5 grade-point average and participate in monthly single-moms network meetings.

There are four networks across the Valley. At meetings, moms learn practical skills and talk with other women who are going through similar experiences.

Speakers teach them how to manage their finances, raise children or cope with stress. Older single moms or women who graduated from the program offer mentorship to younger and newer single mothers.

The point is to provide women with skills and a support network to help them become successful post-graduation, Coffman said.

Patty Farias, 36, said she left an abusive 12-year relationship and moved to Arizona with her daughter and a little bit of money. She started a new life here with no friends, family or even a car.

Two years later, Farias is pursuing a nursing degree at Phoenix College with assistance from Helping Hands for Single Moms.

She works 20 hours a week, attends classes and tries to spend as much time as possible with her 11-year-old daughter.

“That’s one of the reasons why I’m doing what I’m doing,” Farias said, “to prove to my daughter – show her, I guess – that education is going to take you wherever you want to go.”