Rhonda Clemons-Hill never thought she would be a single mother. But she was widowed two weeks before her son was born.
“I realized how hard it is to parent alone,” said Clemons-Hill.
She had a large support network of family, friends and members of her church, as well as a Masters of Business Administration, if she decided to enter the workforce.
“If it’s hard on me, how in the world do most single moms do this?” said Clemons-Hill, recounting her thoughts at the time.
She first began to contemplate a place for single mothers then, which led to the creation of Zoë Institute.
“We didn’t want to be just a crisis agency,” said Clemons-Hill.
While Zoë Institute has expanded, it was originally intended as a center where single mothers could get assistance. Support is offered in many different forms, from food to support-group style classes.
Zoë Institute is not just a place a woman can have her physical needs met, but her also emotional and mental needs, according to Clemons-Hill. That’s true especially in the connections and sense of community offered.
She said this is particularly important for single mothers.
“They get isolated because they are so busy and they end up making decisions in a vacuum,” said Clemons-Hill.
Her suggestion to single parents is to find four people they trust to be honest with them and whom they believe will give sound advice. Then, before making any important decisions, they should talk with these four people.
“I’ve seen that really save people a lot of heartache,” said Clemons-Hill.
The institute has had many success stories, including one single mother of four who works full-time while earning her degree by taking classes online.
“She just finished her semester with straight A’s,” said Clemons-Hill.
In Oklahoma, this accomplishment is especially rare.
Fewer than one in seven females in Oklahoma completes four or more years of college, and almost 20 percent never finish high school, according to the Women’s Foundation of Oklahoma.
Oklahoma has the eighth-highest rate of teen pregnancy in the nation, and almost half of Oklahoma’s poor families are headed by single women.
Clemons-Hill believes there are many resources in Cherokee County to help single parents, as well as other families, though many may be isolated or don’t know they can ask for help.
Cherokee County Department of Human Services Director Steven Edwards would agree.
They said those asking for assistance, and those getting assistance, could easily swap places and be “on the other side of the desk” – both Edwards and Clemons-Hill used those words.
Edwards said one program often used by single parents making minimal income is Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.
“You have to be working or in job training for at least 35 hours a week,” said Edwards.
Those in the program will then receive $225 a month for one adult and one child, plus $13 per hour for a parent in job training.
TANF has among the most stringent application guidelines, and many who do come out of the program still need assistance of some kind. Edwards said the goal is to eventually get people in the program off of assistance altogether. There are cases where this happens – including one single mother who went on to get her degree and is now a case worker at DHS.
Other groups, including churches and schools, are also trying to offer help to mothers, in one way or another.
There are multiple “Mom’s Day Off” programs in Tahlequah that allow parents to drop their children for child care at a nominal cost for a few hours. But many of them close in the summer, which is why Janalyn Satterwhite and First Baptist Church decided to host their program during those months.
“I think every mom is a working mom,” said Satterwhite, who is also the church’s minister of pre-kindergarten children.
She said the program is unlikely to directly help working parents, since it is available during the day. But the church also offers “date night” child care to give couples and single parents nights to themselves.
Many parents, including single mothers, work at First Baptist Church. Satterwhite often tells them to find a sense of balance.
“Whether or not you are a mom, you need balance,” said Satterwhite. “We end up breaking down, and then our families end up breaking down.”
Some ways she suggested doing this were waking up before the children; getting children to help with chores; “co-oping” child care with other parents; and asking for help from those who don’t have children.
“I think we really need to be connected with each other,” said Satterwhite. “We’re not alone in this world.”
She said it is not easy, especially for single parents who are the sole providers.
Tiphanie Russell, a ministry assistant at First Baptist, also said balance is important – not just between her personal needs and her child’s needs, but also her employer’s needs.
“You have to make sure you keep the focus on all things at once,” said Russell. “I think that’s not just something working parents face.”
She also said parents should not be ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help.
While many parents don’t want to do that, Clemons-Hill said other should be more willing to offer help with little things, like mowing the lawn or taking someone else’s children along on a fishing trip – especially for a single parent.
“Oftentimes, it wouldn’t take much to make a big difference in a single mom’s life,” said Clemons-Hill. “A lot of people avoid getting involved because they think it will be a black hole of requests. There are lots of times I would have loved for someone to offer something small without being asked, and for me to have realized people care and are willing to help.”