Mentor Mom Helps Single Moms Cope
By Karla Peterson Aug. 26, 2013
As a 19-year-old single mother without a job, a high-school diploma or a place to live, Chaunice Cowan knew she needed help. And when a spot opened up in Home Start’s Maternity Shelter Program — where struggling young mothers get a place to call home and the support to get their lives on track — Cowan she knew she was lucky to get it.
When the Home Start staff suggested she meet with a mentor, however, Cowan was pretty sure it was the last thing in the world she would ever want to do. But after just a few minutes with Kathy Gumm, Cowan knew she was wrong.
“At first, I did not want a mentor. I thought there was no point in having one,” Cowan said, settling into the couch in the Normal Heights Maternity Shelter bungalow she shares with daughter Laneice, who turns three next month. “But we met at Phil’s BBQ, and I saw that we had similar backgrounds and she could really understand my life. It was really cool.”
Gumm is a 55-year-old legal secretary with a career she loves, two grown-up children she is proud of and memories of surviving young single motherhood that she is happy to share. Even if the road to wisdom was often no fun at all.
“When I started reading about this program, I thought, ‘Whoa, this is something I can relate to,’ ” said Gumm, who takes Cowan and Laneice out for regular dinners, drives Cowan to job interviews and advises her on everything from applying for subsidized housing to how to get a student bus pass. “I wanted to share my story. I wanted to let her know that there will be up times and down times, and easy times and hard times. But you just need to stand firm and be the best mom you can be.”
Founded in 2009 as part of a pilot program funded by the United Way, Home Start’s Maternity Shelter Program gives at-risk young mothers safe and secure housing, child-care, parenting education and help finding jobs, finishing high school or starting college.
Earlier this year, MSP added volunteer mentors to the mix, hoping that strong, successful women could be a source of inspiration for girls whose lives have been long on hardship and short on role models. After hearing about the Home Start maternity program through the San Diego Legal Secretaries’ Association, Gumm decided she wanted to be one of those women. And she knew what it would take.
Born and raised in Louisville, Ky., Gumm gave birth to her daughter, Wayneshia, when she was 15. Busy with college and then the Army, the baby’s father was never really in the picture. But Gumm’s mother sure was.
When her teen daughter got pregnant, Florence Mitchell insisted she keep going to her regular high school instead of hiding out in the special school for pregnant girls. When Wayneshia was born, Mitchell offered to take care of her every day, as long as Gumm stayed in school.
“My mother was very strict and very old school,” Gumm said. “She was determined that I was going to be a mother to my daughter and that I was not going to sit around getting food stamps and being on welfare. I guess my mother was my Home Start.”
After studying computer science at the University of Louisville, Gumm packed up Wayneshia and moved to California in 1978. They lived with relatives in Santa Ana, and Gumm got a secretarial job. Then she started taking paralegal classes at Santa Ana College, and the scattered pieces of her challenging life took gratifying shape.
Classes lead to a career, which took her from law offices in Orange County to firms in San Diego. Wayneshia is now a married mother of three with a Ph.D from San Diego State and a counseling job at San Diego City College. Gumm’s 28-year-old son, Jaye Dale, is an engineer at Hewlett-Packard. As a mother, Gumm’s work is more or less done. As a mentor, the adventure is just beginning. And it promises to be another good one.
“Hopefully, Chaunice can take what I’ve learned and learn from it, too,” said Gumm, who was married to William Gumm for 26 years before his death in 2010. “Things like the importance of school, and that a job is not just about a paycheck, it’s about the future. I thought I could help her stay motivated and show her it is possible to succeed. The proudest day of my life was when my daughter graduated from college.”
From her end of the couch, Cowan looks at the woman in the spiffy navy-blue suit and shiny red pumps and smiles the stunned smile of the recently converted. She’s got the right person on her side now. She just knows it.
“Look at where she is now,” said Cowan, who is getting her GED and working as a telemarketer. “She’s got a great job and she’s volunteering to talk to me. She isn’t even getting paid.”
Then it was the mentor’s time to grin.
“I get paid by watching you grow.”
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