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Climb Wyoming works with single moms across the state to break cycles of generational poverty

A sign on a window reads "Climb Wyoming"
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
Climb Wyoming’s office front on 1st Street in downtown Laramie

In downtown Laramie, there’s a blue building with tall windows tucked between two local staples – Front Street Tavern and Lovejoys Bar & Grill. While it might not look like much from the outside, upstairs is the office for an organization that’s had a big impact for many.

Over the past four decades, Climb Wyoming has worked to break cycles of generational poverty in a state where almost a third of families with single moms live below the poverty line. The nonprofit has served over 10,000 moms and 25,000 of their children – that’s more than the third largest city in Wyoming.

Katie Hogarty is Climb’s CEO and has been with the organization for nearly fourteen years. She says women who participate in the program are really struggling to make ends meet.

A woman smiles at the camera. Plants are in the background and you can see a train through the window behind her.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Radio
Climb CEO Katie Hogarty

“On average, women are making about $550 a month before they come to Climb, which is forcing parents to make impossible choices for themselves and for their families,” she said.

Hogarty’s office is brightly lit and looks out onto the train tracks running through town. On the wall there’s a pair of framed costume butterfly wings – a gift for Hogarty from a Climb graduate for being a “job fairy.” A white noise machine whirs out in the hallway.

A pair of costume fairy wings framed on a wall.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
A framed gift for Climb CEO Katie Hogarty from a past graduate. She said the wings “remind me of our responsibility to see the moms that come in the program, to see their strengths and their potential.”

“Women are significantly increasing their wages post-program, upwards of $2,000 a month, which makes a huge difference in their lives and the lives of their kids,” she said.

But Hogarty said Climb is way more than just a twelve-week job training for community-specific needs, which include positions like truck driving or nursing assistants. It’s holistic, with an emphasis on mental health and how poverty impacts the brain.

“The women that come through the program oftentimes come in in a triggered state when they are panicked about feeding their kids or their own physical safety or where they're going to spend the night or how they're gonna get to work,” she said.

The client program was founded in 1986 by Dr. Ray Fleming Dinneen, a psychologist, and her mother. Climb participants receive individual and group counseling as part of the program.

Molly Kruger first came to Climb as a therapist and is now the organization’s COO. She said their model is intentionally designed to support the growth of executive functioning skills, like planning, organization and emotional regulation.

“If the schedule changes, we're going to talk about it. If there's conflict, the culture is that we're really naming it and talking about it to really work through in a different way than maybe moms ever have,” she said.

A woman smiles at the camera
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
Climb COO Molly Kruger

According to Climb’s 2023 Progress Report, 75 percent of participants report increased executive functioning skills after the program – and the benefits don’t stop there.

“Not only have they done a lot of work to build those skills for themselves, now they're passing them on to their children,” said Kruger.

CEO Hogarty said the program currently has a graduation rate of 98 percent and 91 percent of graduates are employed full-time post-program. In addition to its office in Laramie, the organization also has locations in Cheyenne, Casper, Rock Springs, Jackson and Gillette.

Moms go through the program as a cohort of 10 to 12 people, which helps combat the loneliness of poverty and build social capital. For Climb graduate Jenny Armajo, that community was a big highlight.

“It was really nice to connect with other single moms that were going on similar stuff that I was dealing with, like how to balance life and how to do jobs,” she said.

A woman takes a selfie
Jenny Armajo

Armajo is Northern Arapaho and from the Wind River Reservation. She lives in Laramie now and heard about Climb through Facebook about six years ago.

“I thought, ‘You know, if I get the training for free, then I could move myself and my son up and I wouldn't have to go job to job,’” she said.

When Armajo’s son was little, she was going to school for nursing – but there was a lot to juggle.

“I quit school for a while because I couldn't afford to live life and then school at the same time, plus be a mom. So, I made the decision to leave school,” she said.

She pieced together work at fast-food restaurants and laundromats, but the long hours and early starts made it hard to spend time with her kid. But through Climb, Armajo got her Class B commercial drivers license. She said it’s made a difference.

“I know I won't go without a job, that me and my son won't ever have to have the fear of knowing I might not know where to work or we might have to move,” she said. “I am so secure with myself to walk into any job and be like, ‘Alright, I'm ready to work. What do you have for me?’”

Armajo said she came away from Climb with the confidence to keep growing, even after the program was over.

“I challenged myself and had the confidence, then went and got my Class A [commercial drivers license], so I drive bigger trucks now,” she said.

Armajo lights up when she talks about her son, who’s now almost fifteen. But he’s got a classic teenage-boy response to her job.

“‘Oh, that's cool, mom’ – that's all he says,” she laughed. “I'm like, ‘Do your friends know I’m a truck driver?’ He's like, ‘Why would they?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know, because it’s awesome!’”

Korin Schmidt is the director of the Wyoming Department of Family Services, which contracts with Climb and administers public assistance programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). But she said those programs have their limits.

“We want families to avoid chaos, but the inherent nature of our benefits are temporary and most of our programs are set up for limited eligibility,” she said. “Certainly it's income-based but also time-based, and there's also work requirements that are attached to a number of our programs.”

Schmidt said Climb’s approach, and the approach of other intergenerational programs, can have powerful, long-lasting impacts.

Advertising materials for Climb Wyoming
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
Posters featuring Climb graduates in the organization’s classroom in Laramie.

“[They] become part of a wonderful cycle of learning, that I think addresses the situation in front of the parent but also helps to give all the children living in the home the opportunity to see what it's like to be successful as well,” she said.

It’s hard to quantify the benefits of Climb, whether on a micro or macro level. But, the program estimates it has saved the state roughly $120 million as a result of decreased dependence on public programs like SNAP.

“Almost 80 percent of our participants have reduced their food stamp usage and access to private health care about triples, so families are able to take care of their health,” said CEO Katie Hogarty.

Climb was recently selected as one of the fifteen top organizations in the country with an impact on two generations. They’re excited to keep sharing their best practices on a bigger scale, but they plan to keep their focus close to home – on Climb participants in Wyoming, like Jenny Armajo.

“They taught me that I am worth it,” Armajo said. “I'm worth it to find what I need in life.”

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.

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