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Cara Hicks helps single moms find resources, network with and support each other through her organization, the MOMentum Network.
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MOMentum Network participants attend a recent SUMMIT Leadership Session held at Woople.

Several days before giving her speech as salutatorian of her high school, Cara Hicks discovered she was pregnant. As a child of a single mother who had always stressed the importance of education, Hicks was determined not to become a statistic. After taking a semester off, she raised her baby in an off-campus apartment, with neighbors and members of the campus ministry helping with child care.

Through her experience she developed a passion to help other single mothers who want to go to college, and people would often reach out to her to see if she would be willing to speak with or offer advice to someone they knew experiencing an unplanned pregnancy during their college years.

"I loved sharing my story if it helped someone," said Hicks, an East Brainerd resident who is now a mother of four.

In July 2014, she started researching about and meeting with a mentor to discuss the possibility of developing an organization to create a support system for young women dealing with all the pressures of motherhood in addition to college life.

"I felt there was a need that was not being met," said Hicks, who realized her mission to fill that need would require her to devote herself to the project full time. "For me, it was a leap of faith."

The MOMentum network was born, with the first session held in November 2014.

"At the time, I wanted to create a safe space for single moms to come together," she said, describing the informal meeting as similar to a kid-friendly dinner party. "I wanted to get to know girls, find out what their needs were and tell them what I was hoping to do."

Since Hicks is unable to spend years doing research, she said she considers MOMentum to be a work in progress.

"College students and single moms are two of the loneliest populations; both can be very isolating," Hicks said. "There's a need to be with other people who understand where you're coming from and are willing to help."

She said in her own experience, she was reluctant to ask for help and would try to do everything herself.

"I wanted to bring people together to form intentional, powerful relationships," said Hicks, adding that resources exist for financial help or child care, but women often are not aware of them or are not familiar with networking, a skill which can be required to open many of those doors.

A former president of the Young Professionals Association of Chattanooga and a graduate of Leadership Chattanooga who is also involved with the Chattanooga Women's Leadership Institute, Scenic City Women's Network and Protégé Chattanooga, Hicks has incorporated elements of leadership gleaned from these programs into MOMentum.

"It's more than a support group or a moms' club," she said. "We want them to graduate with the knowledge, skills and assets employers want."

Hicks said community leaders are often asked to speak, and the group holds round-table discussions allowing them to express the things that matter to them.

While the primary focus has been at UTC, any local college student is welcome to participate.

This fall, five participants received a $500 scholarship for the semester, dispersed in $100 increments per month with the stipulation that the recipient attend MOMentum sessions. There are seven group members on scholarship this semester.

There are several types of sessions, from the MOX group focusing on fun activities or Bible studies, as well as the SUMMIT Leadership Sessions held Saturday mornings in local businesses, with topics such as "Moms and Money." Related activities for kids are held simultaneously in a separate room, and the schedule and start time varies to fit the busy schedules of the participants, she said.

While the program is based on biblical principles, it, along with the scholarship, is open to anyone regardless of what they believe, Hicks said.

The next chance to apply for the scholarship starts in April, with applications due in May. The number of scholarships offered is contingent upon funding. Hicks said she tries to limit the group to around 10-15 mothers.

Hicks said she was almost forced to give up the project and return to work full time, but was allowed to continue her work through the $3,000 prize she received as the winner of Dunkin' Donuts' "Thanks to You" honor, which was awarded to a handful of locals contributing to the community last October, with Hicks receiving the grand prize.

She said there is a huge need for people to get involved with the project as volunteers. For more information, about the program, scholarship or volunteering, visit themomentumnetwork.org or contact Hicks at cara@themomentumnetwork.com.

Email Emily Crisman at ecriman@timesfreepress.com.

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