Climb Wyoming graduate Josetta Gabbidon and children

A Wyoming nonprofit is lifting single mothers out of poverty and into good jobs

Climb Wyoming helps struggling moms land in the workforce through a free 12-week training program

“When we dig into the data of families that are most in need across the state, it’s low-income, single moms. That’s a data-driven decision. And if our mission is to break the generational cycle of poverty, you do that by working with moms,” says Katie Hogarty, JD, chief executive officer of nonprofit Climb Wyoming.

A quarter of all children who live in Wyoming are in single-parent families. Data shows those children are more likely to live in impoverished conditions compared to children growing up in married-parent families.

Climb Wyoming is a comprehensive job training and job placement organization. It partners with other nonprofits and community resources in the areas where their six offices are located, as well as education partners like industry experts, employers, and community colleges. But the foundation of its program is rooted in mental health.

Founded by Ray Fleming Dinneen, Psy.D. almost 40 years ago, Climb Wyoming’s deep expertise is understanding how poverty impacts the brain. Single moms who come to the organization are often living at 35% below the poverty level with $550 in their pockets. It’s similar to managing trauma, Hogarty says.

“It means if you have $5 in your pocket, you’re either putting that in your car for gas to get to a job interview or you’re feeding your kids. It means that our kids might not be able to participate in extracurricular activities, and the shame and guilt that you experience as a mom not being able to provide choice for your children. It means being really isolated, or lonely. It means maybe you haven’t ever been shown the hidden rules for filling out a job application so you can’t get a good job because you don’t have access to some of the rules,” Hogarty says.

Katie Hogarty, JD, CEO, Climb Wyoming

“So you are in fight, flight, or freeze mode all of the time,” Hogarty continues. “And you’re not only trying to be successful in the work that you’re doing, but you’re trying to parent and you’re trying to navigate the world from a pretty triggered state in your brain. It just impacts everything.

“It impacts your physical health, your mental health, your sleep, your kids, what you’re modeling your kids, your stability, housing. It’s a very tough space to be in.”

‘It was really an emotional time’

The events that lead to single motherhood vary for Climb participants. It could be unintended teen pregnancy, becoming widowed, deep generational poverty, senior citizens who take over custody of their grandkids, or abandonment, like what Josetta Gabbidon faced 11 years ago.

Gabbidon immigrated to the U.S. with her husband and started her Wyoming life in Laramie. After her husband lost his job, he went back to Africa and never returned, leaving Gabbidon with their two children, ages 11 and seven, at the time. Her car broke down. She almost lost the house.

Josetta Gabbidon, Climb Wyoming participant

“I was down because it was really an emotional time. I just lost my mom. My husband wasn’t there. I had my kids, and they were little kids, and I was figuring out how to support them,” Gabbidon says.

“Since I am the older sibling, I feel like I have a lot more memories before Climb,” recalls Gabiddon’s son, Destin.

“I remember the lack of confidence and the sadness. I remember waking up and seeing my mom’s sleepless nights, but most importantly I remember the constant effort to make everything seem like it was okay.”

Gabbidon didn’t immediately embrace the mental health aspect of Climb Wyoming’s structure so there was a gap between her introduction to the organization and her acceptance into the program. While that was her choice, Hogarty says all moms have to have some pieces of stability in place or moving towards stability before they start. And the organization can help them with stable housing, childcare, and transportation.

Multiple Pathways into the Workforce

Once moms commit, it’s a 12-week, free program that usually has 10 to 12 women per class.  Group and individual counseling are critical components, and of course training for jobs such as:

  • large vehicle driver or bus driver via commercial driver’s licenses,
  • certified nursing assistant,
  • bank teller,
  • administrative assistant,
  • warehouse worker (forklift training, inventory management and office work),
  • certified medical assistant,
  • skilled trades professional (welding, plumbing, and pipefitting),
  • and construction worker.

After training is completed, Climb Wyoming assists with job placement and support through meetings and check-ins as the moms transition to their new roles. The University of Wyoming has found the post-graduation piece has led to its long relationship with the organization. The university currently employs 50 Climb Wyoming moms.

Tiffany Kautzsch, senior employment and staffing partner for HR, University of Wyoming

“Once we hire somebody, there’s already an assessment of a good fit. Then you have the transitional support of the extra meetings with Climb, talking about [the mom’s] transition into their role, building relationships where they are, getting assistance they might need to get stood up in their role,” says Tiffany Kautzsch, senior employment and staffing partner for human resources at the University of Wyoming.

“We don’t get that with Joe Shmoe off the street, so it really set up a successful dynamic because it’s so incredibly intentional.

“There’s a little bit of financial support during that transition in the beginning. So ultimately, hiring a Climb graduate is less risky on our end than hiring anyone off the street who doesn’t have the pre-development, transitional and ongoing support.”

Road to Stable Employment

Once Gabbidon was ready to participate, she trained as an office worker, learning computer software, office etiquette, how to negotiate with people, self-awareness, and other skills. Because of layoffs and other circumstances, her first few jobs didn’t last as long as she hoped.

But Climb Wyoming helped her until she landed at the dean’s office of the University’s School of Pharmacy where she is an office associate. Gabbidon has been there for five years.

“Climb took me from zero to ten. I didn’t know what the next thing would be for me. With Climb, I know every time I need help, they’re always a means of support for me,” she says.

The university isn’t just Gabbidon’s employer. It’s also where both of her children are pursuing degrees. Her son Destin is studying criminal justice, and her daughter Destiny is in the performing arts program.

Destiny says she doesn’t remember a time when the Climb community wasn’t a part of their lives.

“I think Climb helped my mom have another purpose in her life. Besides just caring for her kids, she gets to do something that she likes and excels at,” Destiny says. “It has changed my life by allowing my mom to work at the same college I go to and I get to visit her every day, which is great. I feel it also shows me that if you work and keep on working you can get to a good place in life, as well as make good connections.”

Destin adds, “In her life, she has people. She has friends and comrades. I am a believer in the idea that life is not meant to be walked alone. You need friends and comrades to help you through and she has that now. For me, there is a sense of peace. There is a peace of mind knowing that my mom is happy and living her life to the fullest – not holding back but embarking on new adventures.”

‘My dream is to work ourselves out of a job’

Climb Wyoming has worked with more than 10,000 moms and 25,000 children since its inception. Its graduation rate is 98%. Two years post-graduation, 86% of the moms have doubled or tripled their wages.

“It is so exciting to see these women transition, thrive and seeing them go from poverty to self-sufficiency strengthens our entire community at large, our campus community, and Laramie community. And it’s an absolutely wonderful transition and successful partnership we are hoping to continue strong for as long as we can,” Kautzsch says.

“My dream is to work ourselves out of a job,” Hogarty adds. “I wish we didn’t have such dire poverty across the state of Wyoming and there is a need for this program. And as long as there is a need, Climb’s doors will be open, moving the needle forward in poverty alleviation as best as we can.”