DULUTH -- Melodie Nelson needed help. As a single mother of two young girls with the desire to attend college, she searched high and low for affordable childcare while she took classes.

"I looked all over the Internet -- all of the places were dead ends," the Lawrenceville resident said. "But then I found (H.O.P.E.) online while looking and I've been a part of their program since the fall of 2011."

Helping Other People Be Empowered, an up-and-coming nonprofit based in Duluth, was a lifesaver for Nelson, who is the only client in the program. The H.O.P.E. organization was founded by Duluth resident Kenita Pierce-Lewis in November 2009 as a way to lessen the financial burden on single parents trying to further their education.

With the program, Nelson is working toward her bachelor's degree in psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College and is slated to graduate in December.

According to Pierce-Lewis, the program's mission is "serving low-income single parents working to obtain a college degree by providing assistance in subsidized housing, child care assistance, social services and life skills."

"I have an education background in health care management, so I was in my career field, managing a hospice office," she said. "I was sitting there one day and I was bored. I was thinking, 'What can I do every day and not get paid?'"

And then it hit her: H.O.P.E.

"I found in my own experience is when you're in college and you have a job, the government doesn't assist you in childcare," she said. "They want you to have vocational school, but if you're doing anything beyond that, they won't help you. I thought that was just the most backwards thing I'd ever heard because the purpose is to propel you forward. I found it frustrating. Some college campuses have housing for families, but not many and not for single parents."

Over two years ago, she started her program and has helped a total of four parents.

With the help of eight volunteers, Pierce-Lewis is able to provide these parents with subsidized housing vouchers (not exceeding $400 a month) and child care vouchers (not exceeding $100 a week) while they are attending an accredited college. H.O.P.E. does not pay for the schooling.

"We're not just about women, we're about men too," Pierce-Lewis said. "For fathers, the number of being single has increased in the past 30 years. Two million out of the 12 million families in the United States are now raised by single fathers."

Although the program is designed for both sexes, not everyone is able to participate in the program. Applicants must pass the initial screening process and must be a U.S. citizen, a single parent, a high school graduate (or GED), must be employed full- or part-time for at least six months and must show financial need.

When they're accepted, they must be a part of a two- of four-year degree program at an accredited school and maintain a 2.7 grade-point average or higher.

"If you fall below a 'B' average, we have to take you off the program," Pierce-Lewis said. "We want to help people who are going to be successful."

While H.O.P.E. is still growing, Pierce-Lewis and her team are constantly thinking of new ways to expand and help their clients. In the future, the nonprofit hopes to build a day care center and subsidized housing, plus help with transportation needs and food issues, and eventually make the program national.

But H.O.P.E. has a long way to go and needs funding. Right now, all of its money comes from individual donors in the area.

To help with the funding issues, the nonprofit is looking for volunteers to create a fundraising committee and help in other areas, like grant writing, marketing and Internet skills.

"Anything that can help us is welcomed," Pierce-Lewis said.

For more information about H.O.P.E., visit www.hopbe.org.

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