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New nonprofit opens campus in St. Louis to lift women into the middle class

New nonprofit opens campus in St. Louis to lift women into the middle class

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ST. LOUIS — In a city that has long struggled with poverty, Leslie Gill knows many local social service organizations too often are just “trying to stop the bleeding.”

Rung for Women, led by Gill and founded by Ali Hogan, hopes to be that next step on the ladder, helping hundreds of women living on the edge of poverty climb into the middle class each year.

Now, Gill and Hogan will have a new $20 million campus in the city’s Fox Park neighborhood from which to do it. Construction is wrapping up on the rehab of the Fox Brothers Manufacturing building on Sidney Street, complete with classrooms, health care, child care, fitness center, a commercial kitchen and the urban garden to supply it.

Rung for Women set to open $20 million center

A crew with Allen Outdoor Solutions runs irrigation plumbing on Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in an outdoor courtyard at Rung for Women with St. Francis de Sales Church steeple nearby as crews of contractors prepare for an opening of the $20 million nonprofit in St. Louis' Fox Park neighborhood. Rung is located at 2717 Sidney Street. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

For Hogan, the granddaughter of Enterprise Rent-A-Car founder Jack Taylor, her vision has come a long way from the Rock Hill retail shop she opened a decade ago to help women find affordable professional attire. After closing the store in 2017, she spent the ensuing years getting “a lot of smart people in the room” to research and design a nonprofit model meant to truly change women’s lives with high-touch career coaches, counseling, child care and other services.

They’ve partnered with nine other nonprofits — co-designers, they call them, because of their help creating Rung’s programming: Family Care Health Centers for health care, the Fit and Food Connection and Urban Harvest for nutrition and wellness, LaunchCode for job training, Prosperity Connection for personal finance coaching, Provident Behavioral Health for mental health, and Safe Connections for domestic violence services, among others.

“Instead of re-creating the wheel, it’s better to take organizations that exist and give them space,” Hogan said.

Over the next few months, Rung’s staff will begin recruiting about 100 women to start the program in January. They’re looking for women who are a setback or two away from crisis — living on wages from a couple of part-time jobs, or, as Gill put it, “surviving, not thriving.”

Rung will pull from the whole metro area, from educational institutions, nonprofits, even walk-ins from the neighborhood.

Participants are known as “members,” but there’s no fee. Rung actually is designed to remove as many barriers as possible, hence child care for very young children, and a separate area and staff for school-age children who need help with homework. They’ll have free grab-and-go meals so getting home to cook for the kids isn’t an excuse to stray from the program.

After dealing with trauma, health care or other immediate issues, members will be assigned a Rung staff “coach” who helps them establish goals. Work and career help follows, with coaching on resume-writing, job interviews, even salary negotiations. They don’t want to just place people in low-level jobs. Rung will connect members with high-level contacts at area companies.

The process will take at least six months but will stretch on as long as a member continues attending and participating. Rung plans to add a new cohort of women every quarter or so with the goal of moving and placing several hundred people into the workforce a year.

“We can link them directly into career opportunities,” Gill said. “We want to make sure we provide a direct connection to employers. ... The ultimate goal being more women making more money.”

Hogan hopes to develop the program into one that area companies know produces quality applicants.

“We really want to partner up with as many employers and educators as we can,” she said.

Rung for Women set to open $20 million center

A gym yet to be furnished with equipment features artwork on the wall on Wednesday, July 29, 2020, at the Rung for Women nonprofit. Crews of workers are preparing for he $20 million nonprofit to open in St. Louis' Fox Park neighborhood. Rung is located at 2717 Sidney Street. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

Rung worked with the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University to design a system to measure the program’s outcomes, with an eye on creating a new model that can be replicated elsewhere in St. Louis and the country. Hogan and Gill suspect it won’t be hard to find many women that will jump at the chance to join. Earlier this month, 120 women applied for 10 slots in a pilot program.

Hogan cautioned that Rung won’t be just a casual club for women. Some will inevitably drop out. But for those who want to make a change, they’ll have all the resources they need.

“The trick is finding the women who are really prepared for the work,” Hogan said.

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