CINCINNATI -- The way Nicole Lee sees it, single mothers are unrecognized warriors who deserve to be celebrated for their strength.
They work tirelessly to support their children, Lee said, and put their own needs last more often than not.
"It's who I am," she said. "I'm a single mother."
Lee's experience raising her three children on her own inspired her to create Warrior Moms. What started as a project funded with a $10,000 grant has grown into a nonprofit organization with a mission to change local families' lives -- single mom by single mom.
Lee plans to build upon last year's project, during which she picked moms from Avondale, North College Hill and Price Hill to win complete makeovers and coaching from financial experts and inspirational speakers.
She also wants to provide single moms with a path to financial self-sufficiency. How? By helping them get training to work in the cannabis industry.
"It has been fascinating to see the businessmen, the local tycoons, go after the cannabis thing over the last few years. Why not single moms going after it?" said Jake Hodesh, vice president of operations at People's Liberty, the philanthropic lab in Over-the-Rhine that awarded Lee a $10,000 grant for her Warrior Moms project in 2016.
"Bottom line, she's thinking creatively about industries and opportunities for single mothers and people in communities who in one way or another are either disenfranchised or forgotten."
But as much as Lee believes the cannabis industry could be a path out of poverty for struggling single moms, there's a lot more to Warrior Moms than weed.
The link to child poverty
Lee lists Warrior Moms' vision as: "All single moms embrace a mindset for success." The mission: "To enable single moms to overcome the emotional paralysis that comes from living in poverty."
Not all single moms live in poverty, of course, but nearly 70 percent of the children living in poverty in our region are in homes headed by single women, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau.
That statistic represents more than 52,000 children in our metropolitan area.
Lee launched her project with the goal of helping struggling single moms in three neighborhoods with high concentrations of childhood poverty.
She picked Avondale, North College Hill and Price Hill and started spreading the word, asking single moms to nominate themselves or their friends to win a Warrior Moms makeover.
Carla Belcher heard about the contest and loved the idea. She shared it with all of her friends who are single moms and, at the last minute, decided to enter the contest herself.
Belcher was thrilled when she found out she was the North College Hill winner. A Duke Energy call center employee, Belcher has been home on disability after serious health problems made it impossible for her to work.
Lee held a special event announcing the three winners and invited their families and friends to be part of the celebration.
The second event for the moms was a workshop that featured breathing exercises and other tips related to health and wellness, along with lessons on personal finance. Makeup and jewelry artists were there, too, and Lee talked to the winners about setting goals and positive affirmations.
The third event was a complete makeover and photo shoot, which Belcher called "amazing."
"We came in with our regular clothes, and they just transformed us," she said. "Especially me. I didn't even look like myself."
That event was supposed to be the big finale for the three Warrior Moms winners. But then Lee got connected with Chuck Collins, an author and income equality activist who came to Cincinnati in November.
Lee, Belcher and the other Warrior Moms winners attended several presentations that Collins made, and Collins was so impressed with Lee's Warrior Moms concept that he and his wife returned to Cincinnati in January to work with her and her group. The whole experience inspired Belcher to get more involved with the arts in North College Hill, and now she's working to help beautify her neighborhood.
"From that, everything has turned into a whole movement for me," Belcher said. "I'm a part of trying to revive our community."
Helping moms to help families
That is Lee's goal, too, and she thinks Ohio's fledgling cannabis industry could be a smart way to do it.
She figured medical marijuana businesses are going to need workers, so she did some research.
She found Cannabis Training University, which offers online training, and she's taking the steps to make Warrior Moms an affiliate, she said.
The goal is for local single mothers to be able to go through Warrior Moms to take the online training that would make them better employees for the industry, Lee said.
"I don't think anybody wants to hire anybody that doesn't have any knowledge," Lee said. "My research has shown you can make a pretty good penny just working part time, and that would be ideal for a single mother."
The industry won't necessarily require training for employees, said Thomas Rosenberger, executive director for the National Cannabis Industry Association of Ohio, but having knowledge about the industry and the products would certainly be an advantage for people trying to get hired.
And the cannabis industry has been welcoming to women, he added.
A 2017 study conducted by Marijuana Business Magazine found that 26.9 percent of cannabis executives are women, compared with an average of 23 percent in all other U.S. industries, Rosenberger noted.
"There's a lot of effort put in the industry to make sure women are involved," he said. "And we're seeing the results of that."
While there are people who find the industry controversial, Hodesh said he respects the fact that Lee is thinking about new ways to help single moms build better lives for their families.
"The hustler spirit that she has and the true connection to how these mothers and folks in these communities are living and her willingness to go out there and try something new -- we stand behind all of that," he said.
It's all about helping single moms support their families without having to juggle two or three low-wage jobs to do it, said Da'Mon Butler, who is the owner of Nomad 3176 jewelry and fashion design company as well as a member of the Warrior Moms advisory board.
"If we take care of single moms and moms that are struggling, everybody benefits," he said. "The family benefits, kids benefit."
Lee knows that from her own experience. She spent 20 years as an entrepreneur in the hair and beauty industry, building her business so she could work flexible hours and raise her children.
She retired from that to focus on her children's educations. Her two older kids are in college now -- one at Mount St. Joseph University and the other at Xavier University -- and her youngest is a junior at DePaul Cristo Rey High School.
With her children on solid footing, Lee is focused on building Warrior Moms into the movement she believes it can become.
"I'm just thankful that God trusted me with such a responsibility," she said. "But I'm ready."
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.
To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.