The following is a transcript, lightly edited, of an interview with Kathleen Webb, CEO of Children First. The interview was conducted by Lynn Jackson, Bridges Out of Poverty engagement manager.

Children First, a Bridges organization, is a 501(c)(3) social service nonprofit organization in Wichita, Kansas, with a mission to support students to feel safe and empowered so they can learn and thrive by staying in school and achieving in life.

Gas gauge showing fullLynn Jackson: Tell me a little bit about Children First.

Kathleen Webb: Our mission is to help children succeed in school. I had this vision because I’d seen a federal grant that said, “If you can improve the neighborhood, the school could improve.” I sure did like that. I thought there was something to that. So I started this vision, and now we’re in eight neighborhoods, low-resourced neighborhoods, and we have social workers who are working with students.

Lynn Jackson: Tell me about what led you to use the Bridges Out of Poverty model and the Getting Ahead curriculum with your grant dollars.

Kathleen Webb: Because we have these social workers, we have deep relationships with students, and we got to know their parents. We got to know the situations that the families, many of whom lived in poverty, were in. We learned what it’s like to try and get your students to school on time, to get them dressed, to get them there. We had one social worker who put a worry box in the principal’s office so students who were worried could put in a note. We had a student put in a note and, come to find out, she was supposed to be asleep, but she heard her mom on the phone and her mom was sobbing because they were going to lose their housing. They were going to be homeless soon.

And of course, the student was worried. So our social worker jumped into action. It turns out that she had lost her job and they were in Section 8 housing, and they had gotten behind in their portion of the rent. When that happens, you’re in deep trouble. If you can’t afford your Section 8 housing, how are you going to afford the whole rent? The mother was going through a mental health crisis because she was so depressed from not being able to get this money. We understood, and we jumped in gear. We raised $6,000 to help this woman. We got her back rent paid and back utilities paid. We did so well, right? We patted ourselves on the back.

Four months later, we heard that she was in the school office and couldn’t make her rent. We were shocked. We lifted some pressure off her, but we didn’t help her get out of poverty. We didn’t show her the way. So we started to look around and say, “There has to be a better way.” That’s when we discovered Bridges, and that’s when we discovered Getting Ahead.

Lynn Jackson: I didn’t ask, but I think you’ve hired more staff as well. So you talked about one social worker, but now you have eight, ten—how many social workers are there now?

Kathleen Webb: We have eight social workers in neighborhoods, and then we jumped in with the Getting Ahead initiative, and I started a whole new division, if you will, that works on poverty and how to get people out of poverty.

Lynn Jackson: We always talk about how it’s not a handout, but it’s working shoulder to shoulder. It sounds like that’s kind of where you’re headed with the population. Great things are happening. Tell me, what are the top highlights of what’s been going on in the last year to 18 months?

Kathleen Webb: We’re still a baby at this. You know, we’ve only had a couple of Getting Ahead classes. We have had amazing success stories, which I’ll tell you about one here in a little bit. I think what we are most proud about is that we’re able to offer Getting Ahead in English and Spanish. And then we’re trying to do something different. We’re starting a class, the reason being is because we recently had a Getting Ahead class in a school, and the janitor would often hear us, and she would come up afterwards. She said, “Look, I really want to take this class, but I work in the evenings. If you could do, like, 10 to noon, I could do this—I could take this class.”

So we started to look around a little bit more into this population that we were serving, and there’s a lot of Hispanic mothers who are working second shift or third shift, and they could do mid-mornings. I thought, “We’ve already got 10 women signed up for this, and some of the Hispanic families are still a little traditional, and so the husband is off to work and she sends the kids to school. So she’s got that 10 to noon time period kind of to herself, so we’re going to try it out.”

Lynn Jackson: It’s amazing how Getting Ahead investigators will tell you what they need, and often, it’s not hard to fulfill some of those needs that they’re asking for. Talk with me a little bit about the Kansas Department of Children and Family Services. I think you’ve been collaborating with them or working on a project?

Kathleen Webb: Yes, we have a contract with them now. Because they knew about Getting Ahead and because they are excited about the model, but because they didn’t really have anyone in Wichita that was offering enough classes, we came along and said, “Look, we’re going to start offering a lot more classes.” This is an amazing thing because when they refer one of their clients, they’re going to pay for their client to attend Getting Ahead. It’s going to cover their gas card and other expenses. We haven’t started with them yet, so we now have our schedule to them, but I think others could do that too.

Kathleen Webb: I want to share a story about a gentleman named Rafael. Our social worker met him because his house had burned down. He was a single dad with six children—a great guy. But the house burned down. They tried to live in it, but they just couldn’t do it. You can’t live in a burned-down house. He sadly asked, “What are we going to do?” He got different family members to take care of his children, and he went to live in his car, where he lived for almost a year. Our social worker kept checking on him and asked if he was staying warm and said things like, “Hey, here’s a dinner from McDonald’s.”

The social worker later asked, “How can I help you?” COVID-19 hit, and the good news is that more money came in for rental assistance. Rafael was able to get a house and have the children come back to him, but he didn’t have a job yet. So we continued to provide resources for him. We pulled up with a van full of food, and the children would come out dancing and rejoicing. But still, how could we help him to get ahead? He was stable enough, and we talked to him about coming to a Getting Ahead class. He talked his best friend into coming because his friend had a car. They started to come together, and he started to learn about hidden rules, what it takes to get a job, and how the process works.

In mid-April, on his birthday, he started a job at Spirit AeroSystems, which is a leading manufacturer in Wichita, Kansas. He started at $20 an hour in training. He has a chance to go up to $30 an hour. There were hidden rules in the whole application process that he was aware of because we taught him to look for those hidden rules. We are so excited, and we believe that he wouldn’t have gotten that far without graduating from Getting Ahead.

Learn more about Children First.

Getting Ahead allows those living in poverty to investigate their lives and create a future story.

Bridges Out of Poverty is a tool to address systemic poverty in your community.