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For Mother's Day, a little creative help

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Today is Mother's Day, and millions of kids across the country will spend time celebrating that irreplaceable figure in their lives. Many of these mothers, despite surmounting challenges, manage to support and serve as the backbone of their families.

Today, one in four American children are being raised by a single parent. Forty years ago, that figure was one in ten. While some of these households are led by fathers, the lion's share is, and has been, mothers. These women are an essential link to the health and prosperity of the next generation.

More than 16 million low-income children are growing up today with only one parent, usually a mother. When you look behind the numbers, many women's stories show us that even in today's difficult economy, it's possible for moms raising kids alone to make a better life for themselves and their children. Innovation and aspiration are key ingredients. And yet, those aren't always enough.

Fortunately, some women are able to count on creative help from their communities. Take Natasha Miller, an East Baltimore single mother of four children, three of whom attend The Club at Collington Square, a nearby after-school program operated by Episcopal Community Services of Maryland. Ms. Miller is one of the "founding mothers" of Mother Made, which offers job training and promotes the financial independence of low-income women by creating and selling products that reduce the impact of consumers on the environment. A cooperatively run business organized by Episcopal Community Services, Mother Made has allowed Ms. Miller to focus on developing her career while her children take art classes, receive academic tutoring and spend safe and supervised time with other local kids.

Then there is Linda McNeal, mother of an 18-year-old daughter, Genesis, in Memphis, Tenn. For years, Ms. McNeal and Genesis were trapped in a high-crime public housing building, mired in a culture of poverty and hopelessness. But Ms. McNeal found a safe — and even inspirational — environment in a mixed-income housing development funded both federally and by the Women's Foundation for a Greater Memphis. The program, Memphis HOPE, assigns a case manager to counsel and support both the children and parents in every family in the development. With that extra boost, Ms. McNeal now has a full-time job and plans to attend Southwest Tennessee Community College. Meanwhile, Genesis is applying to community colleges herself. Their future looks much brighter than it did even two years ago.

America is filled with millions of mothers like these two, who have will and determination — but who need innovative support to make a better life for themselves and their children. These examples remind us that government alone can never be the silver bullet to change our narratives. Tapping the resilience and dignity of the human spirit and power of the family and community are equally important. There is a powerful way to blend resources: public dollars in tandem with private funds to create imaginative, risk-taking approaches, as leaders in Baltimore and Memphis have done.

Countries around the world are learning that investments in the education and economic security of women pay dividends that go well beyond the individuals assisted. America should be a leader in this kind of social innovation — not lagging behind. We advocate for two-generation approaches because if we care about our next generation — our children — we must start caring about their mothers, too. That means engaging our communities around mothers, pushing the media to cover stories of vulnerable families in different ways, encouraging public-private partnerships, evaluating what works and scaling it, and identifying what is not working and ending it.

Mothers from all walks of life make sacrifices for their families every day. It's time to recognize those who do so on their own and with limited support. And yet more than just recognition, these moms and their children can change their futures with transformative programs that build skills and offer new opportunities. What a Mother's Day gift that would be.

Anne Mosle is the executive director of Ascend, a program of the Aspen Institute. She is also an executive-on-loan from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Her email is anne.mosle@aspeninstitute.org. Wes Moore, who was raised outside Baltimore, is the author of the best-selling memoir "The Other Wes Moore" and a youth advocate and financial analyst based in New York City. His website is http://www.theotherwesmoore.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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