The little program that could


“Our objective is to get people to a point where they can be ready to enter the competitive job market. They’ve been through a divorce or abandonment or are escaping familial violence, and need to start over. A lot of them were caregivers or stay-at-home-moms, and they are finding that they’re not sure of themselves, or have low self-esteem. Many have a sense of hopelessness. We help them look at the skills and abilities they have. So many leave our program and say, ‘You were there to give me hope when I didn’t have any hope.'”
– Dan Swahm, executive director of Career Solutions, which serves displaced homemakers in the seven-county metro area.

Kerri Kleinschmidt was devastated when her husband, whom she described as “my soulmate for 25-and-a-half years” became “a person I didn’t know at all.” Not only did her husband become verbally abusive, his compulsive spending drained savings and retirement accounts and $250,000 of the equity in their “dream home,” as well as running up $60,000 in credit card debt.

What is a displaced homemaker?
In order to meet the criteria for displaced homemaker services, a woman or man must have worked mainly in the home for a minimum of two years caring for home and family, and due to loss of family support (usually through separation, divorce, death or disability of the primary wage earner) need to obtain employment.

‘I didn’t expect much’
After she ended the marriage, Kleinschmidt, 51, who has a high school diploma and spent most of her adult life as a full-time mother, homemaker and community volunteer, didn’t know where to turn. A nurse at her medical clinic referred her to Career Solutions, Inc., the agency that serves displaced homemakers in the seven-county metro area.

“I just did not know what to do,” Kleinschmidt said. When she went to Career Solutions, Kleinschmidt didn’t expect much. She figured the program might not be able to pay for schooling. She thought maybe they’d help her figure out what to do-and how to pay for it.

MN Dept. of Employment & Economic Development
Workforce Development Division
1st National Bank Bldg., 332 Minnesota St., Suite E200, St. Paul, MN 55101-1351
TTY: 651-296-3900
Serves: Statewide

Career Solutions, Inc.
1295 Bandana Blvd. N., Suite 110, St. Paul, MN 55108
651-647-9961, ext. 202
Toll Free: 888-777-4020
Serves: Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott, Washington

Lives in Transition-AEOA
702 – 3rd Ave. S., Virginia, MN 55792
218-749-2912, ext. 220
Toll Free: 800-662-5711
Serves: Aitkin, Carlton, Cook, Itasca, Lake, Koochiching, St. Louis

WINGS-Tri-County Action Programs
700 W. St. Germain St., St. Cloud, MN 56301
Toll Free: 888-765-5597
Serves: Benton, Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Pine, Stearns, Sherburne, Wright

CHOICES of Southeast Minnesota
Rochester Community & Technical College, 851 – 30th Ave. SE, Rochester, MN 55904
Toll Free: 800-657-3716
Serves: Dodge, Fillmore, Freeborn, Goodhue, Houston, Mower, Olmstead, Rice, Steele, Wabasha, Winona

Central Lakes College, 501 W. College Dr., Brainerd, MN 56401
Toll Free: 800-933-0346, ext. 8010
Serves: Beltrami, Cass, Crow Wing, Douglas, Mille Lacs, Morrison, Todd, Wadena

Life-Work Planning Center
Union Square Business Center, 201 North Broad St., Suite 100, Mankato, MN 56001
Toll Free: 800-369-5166
Serves: Blue Earth, Brown, Faribault, Le Sueur, Martin, Nicollet, Sibley, Waseca, Watonwan

SOAR Career Solutions (AEOA Subgrantee)
205 W. 2nd St., Suite 101
Duluth, MN 55802
Serves: City of Duluth and St. Louis

She was half right. Kleinschmidt credited Career Solutions counselor Kandy Krieger with supporting and encouraging her, and called the assessment programs the agency offers “extremely helpful.” With Krieger’s help, Kleinschmidt settled on a 15-month diploma program in digital media and video production at Globe University/Minnesota School of Business. But what she didn’t get enough of was help finding funds to pay for her schooling.

Krieger gave Kleinschmidt lots of leads for online possibilities to help locate funding, and suggestions for books to read. “It takes a great deal of tenacity and determination [to locate aid],” Krieger said. “Kerri was very determined.”

Kleinschmidt estimated that she spent the equivalent of three eight-hour days online searching for help to fund her education. At the time she spoke to the Minnesota Women’s Press, just six days before she was due to start school, her efforts online had yielded nothing but frustration.

“Everyone says, ‘there’s money out there.’ Well, where is it? It’s like a 2,000-piece puzzle with 15 pieces missing-it’s impossible to piece it together,” Kleinschmidt said. She described a process of finding scholarships listed that she supposedly qualified for-only to learn, during the application process that “Well, gee, it didn’t fit me because I’m not the right age, color, going to the right school … or because I’m going to a diploma program instead of a degree one.”

She did eventually get some help. The financial aid office at Globe helped her apply for federal and state grants that will pay for about 20 percent of her educational expenses. She will finance the rest with student loans. “I will probably owe $27,000 when I graduate,” Kleinschmidt said. “That’s for a diploma, not a degree.”

Struggling to survive
Even a brief analysis of the displaced homemaker program reveals its inadequacies. The program is funded at just $1 million statewide, divided between six agencies serving 51 of the state’s 87 counties. And it’s a struggle to maintain the funding even at that level, say those who work in the program.

“The Legislature is constantly questioning this program,” said Taryn Galehdari, who administers the program for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. “It’s always in line to be cut. We always have to testify [to keep the program’s funding in place] … it’s an easy target. I don’t think they really understand this program, the impact it has on people.”

Swahm agreed. The program, he said, has been under attack since the Ventura administration. “This program was in [Ventura’s] sites,” he said. Though Ventura tried to have the program eliminated, as has Gov. Pawlenty, it’s managed to escape, though not unscathed; the current budget is half of what it was in the 1990s, when twice as many agencies were contracted to serve displaced homemakers and, Swahm said, there was even a small budget to help with educational expenses. Last year Swahm’s agency served 330 people, and, he said, “We were at capacity. Some women had to wait for services.”

Many are unserved
Statewide, the program served 1,172 people in fiscal year 2007, Galehdari said. If this number seems small, that’s because it’s just a fraction of the actual number of displaced homemakers in the state. The exact number of displaced homemakers, while much larger, is hard to pinpoint. Swahm said that according to the most recent census figures, there are 23,000 displaced homemakers in the 11-county metro area, while Women Work! The National Network for Women’s Employment, believes there are more than 113,000 displaced homemakers statewide in Minnesota.

Even though program participants often lack the skills and education to compete for high-paying jobs (less than 10 percent of the women served have a bachelor’s degree), lawmakers have steadfastly refused to fund education efforts for displaced homemakers; instead, the program’s small budget has, by necessity, focused on helping women identify potential careers and develop job-seeking skills. Some may qualify for assistance through other programs.

It’s hard to know if those who need the program most are being served; there are few funds dedicated to marketing the program. “My philosophy is, you just do what you do to reach the people that you can,” Swahm said. “Actually, this program is quite a success story. [It’s the] little program that could, chugging along, getting good results, fighting off wave after wave of attack at the legislature.” He points to the fact that 82 percent of displaced homemakers served by his agency have gained the skills to compete for jobs.

‘They gave me back my self-confidence’
After Diane Penning’s 18-year marriage ended, she didn’t know where to turn. In fact, said the rural Alden, Minn., woman, “My husband was very controlling and demanding, which made it difficult for me to be the person I really was. He had complete control of the finances, regulated my phone calls, my comings/goings … [I was] completely tied down to the house, even as I tried to maintain part-time work.

“His lack of encouragement and support made me only his wife and the mother of three children (which I am blessed to have) … I was no longer Diane, a person with dreams and goals of my own.”

After her divorce Penning, 52, who had two children in high school and one in college, was only able to find low-paying work. “I had one year of vo-tech and one year of college. It had been many years since I’d written a resume.” Penning, who had been divorced in 2002, “stumbled along ever since.”

It was a mention in the events calendar of the Mankato Free Press that brought Penning to Life-Work and peer counselor Marlene Lange. After her divorce, Penning worked some low-paying, part-time jobs. “I wish somebody had told me about [Life-Work],” Penning said. “It’s not well publicized. I wish every divorce attorney would hand out information about these programs.”

Along with self-esteem and job-search skills, Penning found a community of other women who shared some of the same experiences. “It was a very good support group,” Penning said. “We shared and supported each other.” Penning herself took “sharing” literally, passing on some of her of furniture to younger women in need. She is still in touch with some of the women in the group.

Inaccessible to some
In addition to the lack of marketing, there are other obstacles to participation, Lange said. As well as having to do “more with less,” she noted that budget cuts to the program have increased both her program’s service area and made programs inaccessible to some women who live in areas not served by displaced homemaker programs.

“We try to go outside [our service area], to the west, to do some outreach to those [unserved] counties,” Lange noted, adding that budget cuts have meant fewer staff to serve more clients. “And over the past 10 years, major changes like ending AFDC, and the funding for women to attend four years of college. dried up due to budget cuts. Mostly what is available is loans.”

Penning’s story has a happy ending, one she attributes in large part to the help she received from Lange and the services the agency offers, which include needs assessments, personal and career counseling, workshops and support groups, individualized action plans, referrals to additional services and assistance in entering employment.

Penning finished her last workshop with Life-Work in October, and she was hired by Freeborn County Department of Human Services in December. “I wanted something in health care, where I could work with doctors,” said Penning, who has some previous background in the field. Today, she does clerical and transcription work for doctors and therapists. She has full benefits and makes $13 an hour. Previously she worked part time with partial benefits and a salary of $8 per hour.

“I was brave enough to ask for a higher salary than they offered, and got it,” Penning said happily. “They told me afterward that my interview skills were excellent … that’s due to Marlene, she worked with me on that.”

Lange gave Penning something even more. “Since I completed the Life-Work Planning Workshop, I have begun to do freelance writing for local newspapers,” Lange said. She has just sold her first story to a local magazine.

“I’m very excited and would not have been ‘brave enough’ or ‘confident enough’ to have pursued this, if it had not been for the gentle prodding I received from the workshops and my counselor, Marlene Lange (and her staff), in Mankato. They gave me back my self-confidence and reinforced what I knew I was capable of doing-which enabled me to pursue the things I was not only interested in, but would make me happy.”

Want To Help?
Let your legislators and the governor’s office know that you want to maintain funding for the displaced homemaker program, which is funded from fees generated by marriage licenses and divorce decrees, and is currently threatened.

For contact information for your state representative and state senator, go to or call 651-296-2146 or 1-800-657-3550.

Call the governor’s office at 651-296-3391 or 1-800-657-3717, or email