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-- Mark Kennedy
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Mark Kennedy

Cara Hicks, a 31-year-old Chattanooga mother of four, has a solid family life and a supportive husband.

But that wasn't always the case.

A dozen years ago, Hicks says, she was an idealistic single mother trying to earn a degree at the University of Georgia.

"Just 2 percent of teen moms graduate college by the time they're 30," says Hicks, the founder of the MOMentum Network, a scholarship and leadership training group formed to support Chattanooga's college-age single mothers.

Put another way, Hicks had only about a one in 50 shot of completing her degree. But she overcame those ominous odds and now hopes to help other young women facing the lonely road of single parenthood.

"I was 18, sitting in an abortion clinic two days before graduating from high school," explains Hicks, who was salutatorian of her class at Dade County (Ga.) High.

She says she prayed for divine guidance and abruptly walked out of the clinic, later giving birth to her son, Jax. She eventually moved to Athens to pursue her college education, she said. After college, Hicks says, she returned to the area and "got plugged into the business community in Chattanooga."

"I wanted to prove folks wrong, to show them that you could succeed as a single mom," she says.

Hicks says she found success in a sales and marketing career, and she eventually met and married a Chattanooga police officer, Montague Hicks. She says she felt called by her faith to start the MOMentum network, which she describes as a combination safety net/support group for single moms.

The organization started with a Facebook pitch two years ago, and one of the young mothers who responded was Kari Roberts, a 27-year-old mother of two who will graduate from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a pre-law degree this spring.

Roberts, originally from Whitwell, Tenn., says that after high school she became a nursing student at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tenn., but dropped out and returned to the Chattanooga area, where she began working as a waitress and got pregnant.

A failed relationship and two children later, Roberts says she found herself contemplating suicide. The night she intended to take her life, she said, her young daughter walked in the room and said, "Mommy, I need you." Roberts set aside her suicidal thoughts.

After re-enrolling in college at UTC, Roberts got a job as a property manager and learned about the MOMentum Network from social media. At first she was dubious about joining the group, but she forced herself to go give it a try.

"At first, I thought: I hate this. I don't even like women. I didn't think anybody wanted to hear my story," Roberts remembers.

Slowly, though, the network had its intended effect, providing a circle of peers and professionals to fill in the networking gaps caused by single motherhood. MOMentum, which is funded by grants and donations, provides small scholarships to its members, but more importantly gives them access to successful role models.

About 60 young mothers have had contact with the group, founder Hicks says, and between seven and 10 are actively involved in the scholarship program at any one time. Members meet twice a month for leadership training and camaraderie.

"When something happens, you have a safety net," Hicks says. "If you broke your front tooth, for example, I have a dentist that will help."

Gathering herself to return to college took a lot of hard work, says Roberts, but now, with a degree in hand, she hopes to go to law school.

"When I started [MOMentum] I had no confidence," Roberts says. "I didn't think I was worth anything. Now, I feel like I'm funny again. I have friends. I have my life back."

That's the whole point, Hicks says.

"When you feel helpless, connect with someone," she says. "Just that very act of faith is a big first step."

For more information, go to TheMomentumNetwork.org.

To suggest a human interest story contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy @timesfreepress.com or 423-757- 6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

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