Creating A Village

Catalyst Project Gives Single Moms Stability and Voice
 By Leigh Mills NBC 15 News Anchor | Photographed by Kaia Calhoun

It seems only fitting that a mother-daughter team would start a nonprofit aimed at empowering mothers to be the best parents they can be.

“We came up with an idea of having a community of support for young, single mothers with young children, who can feel very alone and overwhelmed by their circumstances,” explains Susan Donahoe, co-founder of Catalyst Project.

“We said, what if they could support each other and live together. The basic idea is we would be able to simultaneously support early brain development and attachment in the young children and the personal, emotional achievement and wellbeing for the moms. We knew that combination would be super powerful and somebody should do it.”

“We were the only ones we could convince to work on this for free,” adds co-founder Anna Donahoe, “So we decided, let’s start with us.”

That was in the fall of 2015. Just six months later, their dream became a reality, when they closed on a house on Madison’s East Side. And within four months, they had three families, who had previously been homeless, living in the house. Those three moms and 10 children have called it home ever since.

“So many programs are actually continuing the marginalization process. There are a lot of transitional housing programs that have a certain time limit, and a specific set of rules. And if you break one, you’re done,” explains Anna, who has a social work background. “When you’re working with trauma, that system doesn’t work. Our mission statement is to partner with mothers to create the physical, mental and emotional space for them and their children to access stability and voice.”

The Donahoes have a unique approach to homelessness, trauma and healing. They are committed to partnering with the parents and letting them take the lead by honoring their wisdom. They also work to stabilize family logistics and improve their economic situations. They meet with the moms individually every week and also have a weekly group meeting with Sagashus Levingston of Infamous Mothers, who serves as a mentor to the moms. And they’re in the process of creating an art therapy studio in the garage.

“Change happens through relationship. It’s been important for us to be very present there,” adds Anna.

Another goal of the Catalyst Project is to improve the learning outcomes for the kids who live there.

“The kids are all in school every day. They’re not sick. Behavior incidents at school have gone down, and percentage of days attended has gone up,” explains Susan. “One of the moms told us this was the first year she attended a parent teacher conference, and her daughter is in fifth grade.”

Catalyst Project has a team of 10 regular volunteers, who help out on a weekly basis with everything from maintenance projects to family meal prep to child care.

“It feels like the right thing to do. The only thing to do. It makes me think of the quote by Lilla Watson, ‘If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together,’” explains Anna.

“For me, it doesn’t feel like we’re the great white saviors. We’re being in community with people because that’s the only way the world can work. We need their voice in their community, and if they’re too busy worrying about basic necessities, then we’re not going to hear their voices.”

To volunteer or donate to Catalyst Project, go to catalystmadison.org.