Supporting single mothers with a wraparound approach

Q and A with Sara J. Cumming (PhD ’14 Sociology) Executive Director of Home Suite Hope, and the Faculty of Arts 2023 Rising Star Alumni Award recipient  Faculty of Arts As the daughter of a single teen , and a former young single mother herself, Dr. Sara Cumming (PhD ’14, Sociology) ows  challenges her clients face at Home Suite Hope. As executive director the Halton organization, Cumming designs programs to help unhoused single mothers put together crucial pieces they need : housing, jobs, childcare and more. Cumming’s doctoral at Waterloo laid the foundation for her work there and at Sheridan College, where she’ s’an award-winning sociology professor. m’ing is known for finding creative ways to build ties with the communit y : sourcing grocery donations for students during lockdown, brokering temporary residences at Sheridan for Ukranian refugees. For h er current project , the Community Ideas Factory, she’s working with 16 local organizations to build a life skills course that can be used and adapted by community organizations across Canada.  

From your research and personal experience, what are the critical factors in helping single mothers achieve self-sufficiency?  

Safe and affordable housing is key. When a vulnerable person family feels secure in their housing , they can start to work on all the other issues in their lives. We need to understand the importance of wraparound approaches-those that wrap many services around individual s , rather than requiring them to find each service themselves. For single mothers particularly, that can mean access to subsidized childcare, education and employment that addresses gender barriers in the labour market, and trauma-based counselling and mentorship. T he approaches taken should also c’ome from an equity and inclusivity perspective.  

Could tell us about the importance of gender studies in your teaching, and advocacy?  

My academic career was really fueled by my personal circumstances. When I entered university , I was the single mother of two young girls and the child of a teenage single mother. For most of my childhood I was raised on social assistance a very small apartment with no access to transportation. It was through my academic pursuits that I came to understand the ways in which gender informed influenced all aspects of my life - the ways in which our lives  have been constructed primarily around these preconceived notions of what it means to be born female or male. The participants in my program at Home Suite Hope have difficult lives primarily because they were born female. Many have been the victims of sexual and/or domestic violence. They are simultaneously expected to be with their young children and work full time to support them. To add to societal judgement, women are less likely to have access to high - paying employment while they are single parenting. Most social policies have been written in ways that are gender blind, yet have the biggest impact on women, especially single mothers. Many women with access to high - paying employment feel that gender imbalances are changing and that women have more equal access to everything now-however, there is a real class division here.   

Reflecting on your time as a PhD candidate at Waterloo, what was a particularly valuable aspect of those years - academically, socially, or otherwise ?  

I was fortunate enough to get into Columbia Lake-the campus townhouses for students with families. This was an amazing experience for me and my children , living in a large community of individuals all balancing school and household/family responsibilities.   Neighbours traded childcare with each other, had study parties potlucks while all our children played together in a very safe setting. It allowed me the security to get through the PhD despite my single mother status. During my time in the Sociology and Legal Studies department I made lifelong friends with other PhD and master’s students and have stayed in constant contact with a few of the professors. This safe and affordable housing, in conjunction with the social supports I was able to attain , are what stand out most for me.