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Kia Stearn

PHOTO BY THE BUSINESS FORUM

As a single mother, Kia Stearn knows that a single unexpected expense — a flat tire or a toothache — can throw everything into chaos.

She once got a traffic ticket and had to choose between bills: the ticket, rent, groceries or utilities. As a mother, she naturally chose to take care of basic needs and delay the traffic ticket, but that resulted in additional fines and before she knew it, her financial situation had “spiraled out of control.”

Years later, Stearn wants to use what she learned by trial and error to help other mothers avoid the errors. That’s why she formed the peer financial coaching nonprofit Positive Women for Change, or PW4C.

“I just think that there should be some sort of group setting in which we can have conversations with other mothers like ourselves and not feel judged,” she said.

PW4C will host an event, “Goal Setting for Success,” this Saturday, May 19, from 12:30 to 3:00 p.m. at the Urban League of Greater Madison, 2222 S. Park St. The event is sponsored by the United Way of Dane County.

The free workshop will help attendees reach their financial goals and teach them to turn bad spending habits into positive ones, Stearn said. Lunch is included.

PW4C provides one-on-one financial literacy and life coaching to help mothers facing adversity.

Women receive budget coaching and small stipends to help them reach “modest, but critical goals.” The women must contribute as well, and the stipends are contingent on the women meeting their goal timelines. Ideally, Stearn wants to reduce a client's debt-to-income ratio by 80 percent.

Her organization, now over a year old, has served about 10 women through peer-to-peer coaching, and hosted about 40 women at a previous financial strategies workshop. About 50 women are expected at Saturday’s event, and women can still register for the event online.

PW4C has provided business clothes to women looking for jobs, gas cards as they drive from interview to interview and crucial encouragement and motivation. It has provided diapers and wipes for a mother with a newborn facing eviction, and referred women to community resources.

Stearn has hit some bumps along the way. The organization tries to follow up with women for a year after their coaching. But when women are in crisis, their phone lines may get disconnected and they may stop responding to email, making it impossible to follow up.

She’d like to serve more women, but has a limited capacity with her funding and could use volunteers. She currently gets compensated for a small portion of her time, and balancing the work, her education, her church life and her family is no easy feat.

“If I could train other people to do what I’m doing, or hire some staff, or increase my wages, I’m sure we’d like to serve 100 women per year,” she said.

Stearn understands the struggles of her clients, and acutely remembers trying to raise a family on “little to no income.”

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“I didn’t choose to have children, it happened because I was taken advantage of,” she said. “As a result of that, I found myself a young adolescent teen having to provide for children and (I) had no clue about how to provide for a family.”

Mothers like her are “all over the place,” she said, but they stay silent because they “don’t want to the world to know” how much they’re suffering.

Her work doesn’t focus on the suffering, she said, but on how to cope with and handle adversity. That includes teaching women to make a household budget, a skill too many of them lack, she said.

“I think there often has been no (budgeting) model from generation to generation of families who are single parents,” she said. “We live on little to nothing and we make it work.”

Now that her own kids are grown, Stearn has taken the time to learn about budgeting and furthering her own professional development. She’s taken a financial coaching class and earned a certificate in nonprofit management from Madison College. She would eventually like to “round out” her skills with a master's degree in business administration.

Her efforts to better the community have not gone unrecognized. She received a certificate of commendation from the office of the governor in 2010, was proclaimed a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero in 2010 and was recently named a 2018 Collaborator of the Year by the third annual Black Women's Leadership Conference.

But her work isn’t done yet. She wants to motivate all of Saturday's attendees, she said.

“I want them to leave refreshed, I want them to leave with a sense of hope,” she said. “I want them to leave feeling less isolated.”