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Banking on KC – Natasha Kirsch

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Natasha Kirsch, the founder and CEO of the non-profit Empowering the Parent to Empower the Child. Its pilot program is The Grooming Project, which is devoted to helping families become self-reliant through job training in the high-demand trade of pet grooming.

Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome, Natasha.

Natasha Kirsch:

Hi, Kelly. Thanks for having me.

Kelly Scanlon:

The Grooming Project, as I mentioned, offers job training and support for struggling parents, but it's the only non-profit pet grooming school in the country. What inspired you to do non-profit work like this, number one? And two, what led you to dog grooming as the means of lifting families and their children out of poverty?

Natasha Kirsch:

Well, I started working with homeless families about 10 years ago. That's when I really learned that, if you got a job making $10 to $12 working full-time, that you would lose all of your welfare benefits. A single mom trying to make ends meet could no longer afford childcare, housing or food on her own. She would often quit her job to go back on welfare, just to support her family.

Kelly Scanlon:

It just became an endless cycle, then?

Natasha Kirsch:

It did. And then, you had the other moms that were trying to make work and they would leave the six-year-old at home to babysit the two-year-old, while they went and worked a second shift job. And then, there were others with felonies on their record or no education. It just seemed really hopeless. I was trying to figure out how I could possibly help these families get onto a different path because I could tell that their kids were following in mom's footsteps.

Natasha Kirsch:

It just hit me one day, when I was driving home from work. My mom called and said, "I need another groomer, put an ad in the paper. I'll take any warm body who walks through the door." My mom was a dog groomer in Iowa. She had always complained about not having enough groomers. And, I knew how much money she made. So I started doing some research and was able to put the two together.

Kelly Scanlon:

So your mother had a dog grooming business of her own, then?

Natasha Kirsch:

Yes. Yes, she already had six or seven employees. But, it was always a struggle for her and she often had to train her own skilled groomers.

Kelly Scanlon:

So you're sitting in the car, you had this revelation. And, how long did it take, then? How did you start? How long did it take for you to come up with The Grooming Project and open your doors?

Natasha Kirsch:

Well, that's funny because it took a long time. I actually decided to go to graduate school to get a degree in non-profit management and I actually spent about two years studying what actually has been working to break the cycle of poverty. It reaffirmed a lot of the hunches that I already had and helped me really develop the program that we have now.

Natasha Kirsch:

So then, after graduate school, it took another three years to actually raise the money to open our doors.

Kelly Scanlon:

Walk us through the program, focusing on the job training aspect.

Natasha Kirsch:

So the job training piece, it takes about six to nine months for a mom or a dad to learn the skills. It's 644 hands-on grooming hours. They are grooming, from day one, Tuesday through Friday, for six to nine months. That's dependent on childcare sick days that they have to take, or court cases or something like that.

Natasha Kirsch:

But, what they're learning is everything from pet handling and safety, customer service, learning the computer system, how to schedule, all the way to hand scissoring a groom. And sometimes, even how to dye a dog's hair.

Kelly Scanlon:

There is such a thing, dying a dog's hair?

Natasha Kirsch:

There is. There's actually a whole big business in that.

Kelly Scanlon:

So they get well-rounded skills and then, they have an internship as well, don't they?

Natasha Kirsch:

That's right. We actually ask them to intern in three different grooming environments. Normally, a bigger, franchise-type doggy daycare boarding, grooming facility, so they can see what that corporate looks like. Then, often there are mom-and-pop grooming salons. And then, there are also groomers that work for veterinarians.

Kelly Scanlon:

You have a magazine called Grooming Love and Hope, and I know from reading some of the articles in that, that one of the big days in the program is when they get their scissors.

Natasha Kirsch:

They get their scissors usually around month two or three. It's really symbolic when they get their scissors because they are stepping into their new profession and they're cutting away some of the stuff in their past that was holding them back.

Natasha Kirsch:

When a lot of the students start with us, so many of them are homeless or they're coming from domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, that type of thing. Just getting to school every day is a really big challenge. Considering being on a bus, taking two to three, four sometimes stops, just to get to school. And by the way, you're dropping off two or three kids at school or daycare, along the way.

Natasha Kirsch:

During this time, we're trying to stabilize the family because they might be couch surfing, they may not know where they're sleeping that night. They may not have any food stamps left and they may not know what they're going to eat that night. There's just a lot of tiny pieces that we have to make sure we can really piece together, to make it so that they can be successful in our school.

Kelly Scanlon:

You provide a very holistic approach and that's why you say that the job training is only half the battle. What are some of the other ways that your programs help to support these families?

Natasha Kirsch:

Well, the very first thing that we do when we're starting with a family is help them secure housing, childcare, transportation and then, mental health if that's needed. Which, in a lot of cases, it is.

Natasha Kirsch:

But, then beyond that, we start working with them. We've got a legal clinic. A lot of our folks might have a warrant out for their arrest because they drove on a license that was suspended. And, they can't the fine so they just keep toppling on top of each other and snowballing. Then, we've got folks that have never been to a dentist before and they've got dental infections so deep inside of them that it's making them really sick. We now work with 22 dentists that help. We work with harvesters, we work with domestic violence shelters.

Natasha Kirsch:

It's really just trying to figure out what exactly does that student and family need and then, what in our network can we pull together for them.

Kelly Scanlon:

So you do have a strong network of community partners. How many students have you graduated, at this point? And, what is their placement rate?

Natasha Kirsch:

So far, we've graduated 84 students and we have 100% job placement rate.

Kelly Scanlon:

Wow. That is incredible. What do you think is the key to that? Is there just such a demand? I know that Americans are pet crazy.

Natasha Kirsch:

Right.

Kelly Scanlon:

Is it just such a demand or is there another reason why you have such an excellent placement rate?

Natasha Kirsch:

Largely, it's the demand. I would love to just say that we're the best school in the world and hopefully, we are. But, I can tell you that our job placement rate is based on demand. People in the community know who we are so they want to take our students. They're not used to having groomers that are trained so we can really help give that business a boost.

Natasha Kirsch:

But, the numbers that I really care about are our retention rate numbers because that tells me whether our program is actually working. It's okay if you can get a job, but it's really hard to keep that job.

Kelly Scanlon:

What are those retention rate numbers?

Natasha Kirsch:

Right now, we're at about 76% retention in grooming, but we've got the other 16% that are employed outside of grooming. Overall, it's just over 90% retention rate. For the families that we serve, this is a very high number in the industry.

Kelly Scanlon:

The other thing is, too, although they may not stick with pet grooming, the other skills that they learned, that you mentioned before being part of this program, certainly carry over. Or, the way you have been able to help them change their circumstance to some degree, anyway, makes them employable and makes the employment opportunities more possible for them, just overall.

Natasha Kirsch:

Yeah, definitely. The biggest thing that I've learned while doing this is that when you grow up on the streets, the skillset that you learn doesn't always translate to job readiness. And, what we're able to do because we are working 40 hours a week with that family, so intensely, we're able to role model better behavior in the workplace, and emotion regulation and really help them practice those skills, day, after day, after day. It might take somebody three or four months of this type of practice before it becomes more natural to them. That's really the key in the retention part.

Kelly Scanlon:

It's interesting that you say that because one of the things that I had read about is that, as the students learn how to groom the dogs, one of the positive benefits is that the art of grooming itself promotes healing and helps with many of the things that you just said. Being able to control anger, being able to come out of our shell, I'm paraphrasing you now, but the interaction with that dog helps all that. What can you tell us about that?

Natasha Kirsch:

That ended up just being a real happy accident. I had heard people before say the healing powers of dogs and I never believed them. But, when my students would start saying that they like coming to school because it's the most relaxing part of their day, that their favorite part is the bathing and the brushing because it's like being in a trance for a little while. I'm thinking, "Well, if people like coming to school every day, they're going to like going to work every day." That's really good for the family.

Natasha Kirsch:

The other part that I thought was really cool was our vision and focus really is on the kid, the children in that family. But, we want to go through the parent to get to the child because we want to reach them as early as possible. The unique thing about working with the dogs was mom has now realized that the dog is responding to her energy so she has to calm herself down before she can handle a dog. They're now telling me that, when they go home and are with their toddlers at home at night when they're throwing a tantrum, they are now learning how to calm down so that the child then can be calm as well.

Kelly Scanlon:

Overall impact tract, you've had 84 students. You've been what, about three years now, of classes, is that right?

Natasha Kirsch:

Yeah. The pilot class was in 2016, so we've been around for a little over five years now. We did a big program evaluation in January and that's when we learned more about our retention rates. What we started seeing in this data was that the average salary was $41,000 for a graduate that's now working more than 30 hours a week in grooming. Our top graduates are earning between $60 and $70,000 a year now.

Natasha Kirsch:

Which is really interesting, because I actually employ one of these graduates that's in the top earner market. She works out in our Lee's Summit salon, which charges market rate but it helps support our school. The interesting thing is she was really struggling five years ago, on welfare for most of her life. Now, she's making more money than many of our staff members that have graduate degrees.

Natasha Kirsch:

We've also seen a 150% increase in social support systems. One of the questions that we ask them is, "If you get a flat tire on the road, how many people can you call?" Most of the students, when they come to us and we ask them that question, they don't have anybody they can call to come help. And now, we're seeing that they have four or five people they can call. That might be because they're now making friends with people that they work with, or their boss might be helping in their lives. And then, of course, our organization continues to help our graduates for two, sometimes three years after they graduate from the school.

Kelly Scanlon:

Let's talk about that. What kind of an after program do you have, that sustains them through that two to three years? Is that a formal program?

Natasha Kirsch:

No. It's interesting because, when I first started the program I thought, "Okay, this is six months long. We do the job training and then, we're done." We learned real fast that that doesn't work. What we found out was some of the folks, then, got the job but maybe their paycheck isn't coming before the food stamps leave. And maybe, there's an emergency with their car and now, they can't make it to work for two days and they get fired.

Natasha Kirsch:

What we ended up doing was creating The Bridge Program. What this is, is when they leave our doors, so we have an employment coach that checks in with them once a week, more if they need or want it. And then, that employment coach also helps work with the employer because sometimes, communication is the only issue and it's something that we can easily work out.

Natasha Kirsch:

We also have an emergency assistance fund. So donors will contribute to this fund that will help if they get a flat tire, or they can't pay for childcare that week, or they need some food, something like that.

Natasha Kirsch:

And then, it becomes helping them navigate off of welfare. They've always lived in public housing, always been in food stamps. And now, they get to decide, "Okay, well, where should I live so that my kids have a good school to go to?" They don't often have people in their lives that have had these choices before. Our volunteers and our staff really can help our students navigate these life changes and they're really big life changes.

Kelly Scanlon:

One of the other things that you teach ... You teach the skills, the technical skills of grooming, but you also teach business management and you have had some students graduate and start their own businesses.

Natasha Kirsch:

Yeah. This has been the fun part. We got a grant from the Kauffman Foundation that really helped us help our students walk through a business plan. It's been a lot of fun because budgets are always the hard part, but the budgets are the most important part. Because they might make the assumption that, "I can groom 10 dogs a day and the average cost per groom is $50 a dog," or whatever, "And, I'm going to be open this many days a month and this many days a year." Well, what you don't factor in is that you may not have 10 dogs a day to groom because somebody might not know that you exist yet. It's really helping the graduates walk through these assumptions and plan for best case scenario, worst-case scenario.

Natasha Kirsch:

And then, what we were able to establish out at our Lee's Summit salon was they can actually go through the simulation. They are the ones that are running that business. They are doing the customer service, they're helping with the marketing. And so far, we've had three graduates start their own businesses, which has just been so cool to see because these folks are now feeling so empowered and so in control of their lives, which is exactly what we wanted.

Kelly Scanlon:

You keep mentioning the Lee's Summit salon. Do you have one salon or do you have several?

Natasha Kirsch:

We've got the school and salon on Troost, 58th and Troost. And then, in Lee's Summit, we have a salon. That is where the graduate students can go and work if they want to. That's also a place where, if we've got a graduate student that maybe ran into some hiccups in life after they graduated and they need some extra training, we can send them out there and work with them there as well.

Natasha Kirsch:

But, the goal of that salon is really to help pay for our school. It's an earned revenue stream that can help us be more sustainable.

Kelly Scanlon:

You've talked about getting to the child through the parent. Do all of the participants, do all the students in your program need to be parents? Or, do you sometimes have other types of students as well?

Natasha Kirsch:

We will occasionally take, maybe two a year, of what we could call non-traditional. These might be folks that have been in prison for the last 20 years and they really have severe barriers to getting a job. We will take some of those folks on. But for the most part, we really focus on parents that have children underneath the age of eight so that we can help teach them how to help raise those kids out of poverty.

Kelly Scanlon:

How can the public, the general public get involved with The Grooming Project?

Natasha Kirsch:

We have a lot of volunteer opportunities, we're always trying to fill out some of our committees or an event is going on. We're always looking for donations. Folks can go to our website, thegroomingproject.org, and learn more about our program.

Kelly Scanlon:

You just had your big fundraiser, your annual fundraiser, a few weeks ago. And, I know that, through the end of the year, you are continuing to try to raise the money to finish your 2022 budget and there are just ongoing donations. Like you said, the emergency fund and other opportunities as well. Do you need volunteers?

Natasha Kirsch:

We do, we also need volunteers. We even like volunteers that like to clean and paint, because they can get pretty dirty with a dog grooming school.

Kelly Scanlon:

And also, on your website, visitors there can find the September 2021 issue of your grooming magazine. And, it's just full of success stories about some of your different students, who have gone on to jobs, and talk about the program, and how meaningful and how life-changing your services, your care and your attention have been for them. I would encourage anyone who goes out to thegroomingproject.org to make sure you scroll down just a ways and click on that digital version of the publication and really, learn more about some of the people who are being helped through this program. All of that is out at the website, at thegroomingproject.org.

Kelly Scanlon:

Natasha, what's your vision moving forward?

Natasha Kirsch:

I hope that, in the next 20 years, we're in every major city in the country. There's a national shortage for dog groomers and there's a huge demand for families that are living in poverty.

Natasha Kirsch:

But, I think even more than that, what I hope that our program will do is help change the way the welfare system works. We have proven that, if you take an all-in approach, and coordinate all of those needed services and add job training to it, you can move a family from being homeless for generations to self-sustaining in less than two years.

Kelly Scanlon:

You are doing wonderful work. Thank you so much for taking the time to come on Banking on KC, to talk with us about your program and all of the good impact that it's having. Thank you very much.

Natasha Kirsch:

Thank you, Kelly.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. To you to Natasha Kirsch, for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC.

Joe Close:

At The Grooming Project, Natasha and her team know that job training is only half the battle to helping parents break the generational cycle of poverty for their children. They take an all-in approach, addressing multiple barriers at the same time. The Grooming Project is already seeing positive results, with a 100% graduate placement rate at jobs that pay good wages. A few graduates have even started their own dog grooming businesses.

Joe Close:

Since its founding, Country Club Bank has invested in generations of Kansas Citians, supporting the communities we serve through financial and volunteer efforts. When each of us invests in the community, we all prosper. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.

 

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