When Javondra Harris and her children moved into their new home in July, she hosted a housewarming party with family and friends.
Harris has a memorable moment from the day: Instead of buying a confetti popper to celebrate the occasion, she accidentally purchased one for a gender reveal with blue powder.
“How do you turn a housewarming party into a gender reveal?” she said. “The living room is packed, and the next thing you know blue powder went everywhere. My auntie said, ‘I always wanted to be a Smurf!’ We truly had so much fun. I was up until three in the morning scrubbing the carpet.”
But even more than the good time everyone had, Harris will never forget it as her very first housewarming party. She credited the support of Pathways to Progress and “divine design” that led her to her home, the upper level of a two-family home in the Greater Ville neighborhood of north St. Louis.
Harris was among 20 people who graduated on Sept. 13 from Pathways to Progress, a collaborative effort of Catholic Charities of St. Louis and St. Francis Community Services to help empower families toward stability and long-term economic independence. The program launched in 2016 in north St. Louis County, and a second location opened in north St. Louis in 2021.
Working with the eight Catholic Charities agencies and other community partners, the initiative provides intense, wrap-around case management and support services for two to four years while connecting to resources that enhance individual strengths, develop skills, build financial assets and coordinate other needed resources.
The program has 56 active clients, and the client-to-case manager ratio is about 12-14 to one. To date, 48 clients have graduated from the program. This September’s graduating class was the largest in the program’s history.
Pathways to Progress was one of six organizations to receive funding from the Oikos group’s Hearts, Hands and Homes, an ecumenical initiative aiming to raise $3-6 million by the end of the year for six organizations that work to increase access to affordable housing in the St. Louis area. Pathways to Progress hired additional member advisers (case managers) for its north St. Louis location, with plans to expand into south St. Louis and beyond, said Deacon John Heithaus, interim executive director of St. Francis Community Services.
Deacon Heithaus was moved by the sight of a recent graduate whose young children ran to hug her as she received her graduation certificate. “At the end of the day, it’s not just about mom and dad — it’s about the family and future generations,” he said. “Generational poverty is something that people have experienced growing up and assumed there was no alternative. By doing what we do, we provide these children with a vision, an idea of what can be, and that they are not limited by the poverty that they are used to. We’re giving the parent the resources that allow them not just to provide their children with a vision, but the means to achieve that vision.”
When Harris started the program, mental health and housing were her primary concerns. “I was having one of those moments where I was feeling the worst,” she said. “My children look at me as the role model and leader of the family, and when you’re always being strong for the family … I can’t think there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve got to make this cry a little louder.”
Harris called United Way’s 2-1-1, where she learned about Pathways to Progress. She met her member adviser, LaToya Swanson, who encouraged her to take a chance on herself. “I started thinking positive and seeing the light,” she said. “Everyone stayed consistent with reaching out to me. I thought, they really do want to help me.”
Harris said she’s felt nothing but support from Crystal Wilson, who took over as her member adviser in April 2021. Through their relationship, Harris has been able to secure housing for her and three of her children, find a new job closer to home that pays a higher wage, and develop budgeting and building credit skills.
Amidst that, Harris published her first novel and started a podcast where she enjoys sharing motivational messages with others.
“My oldest daughter told me, no matter what you’ve been through, you never gave up and you made it happen,” she said. “It’s bittersweet — I don’t want to leave the program, but I need to make room for others.”