Portage County organizations provide food, diapers for low-income moms

Ashley Pamela
Ashley Pamela, a Kent State graduate who majored in journalism, poses for a selfie. Courtesy of Ashley Pamela.

Ashley Pamela was on track to go to the University of Toledo on a full-ride scholarship. She looked forward to joining a sorority and getting involved on campus. She finally felt her life and her future falling into place — and then she got pregnant.

Pamela’s boyfriend at the time, unwilling to let his girlfriend move away to a different city, intentionally impregnated her.

“He was like, yeah, so you’re just gonna have to stay here,” she said.

Pamela considered aborting the fetus and continuing on with her life, but her family’s background of strict religious beliefs encouraged her to keep the baby. Although she lost her mom when she was a child and her dad when she was 16, she still heard the voices of her parents guiding her. She finished high school and graduated eight months pregnant.

“I could hear my parents like, ‘this isn’t right, an eye for an eye,’”  she said. “And I didn’t want to do it, so I changed my mind and I’m glad I did because I feel like if it weren’t for her, I’d probably be dead today.”

Pamela said she fell onto a rough path the years before she got pregnant, traveling by herself to unknown towns and attending college parties. While she had to derail her college plans to have her daughter, Jizelle, giving birth pushed her to go to Kent State University and complete her degree later on.

“I think the best part about having her is that she motivates me to do more and go for my dreams because I know she’s watching,” she said. “So I have to set a good example for her, and it pushes me to get up off my and actually do things.”

Being a single mother is not without its challenges, however. Singlemotherguide.com reports that of the 12 million single-parent families in 2017, over 80 percent were headed by single mothers. Of those, 35.6 percent were living under the poverty line, 31.6 percent were food insecure and 27.5 percent were jobless the entire year.

Ashley Pamela and Jizelle
Ashley Pamela poses with her daughter, Jizelle, after graduating with her Bachelor’s degree.

While government organizations supporting single motherhood are scarce, Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) in Portage County provides nutrition education and food packages to those who qualify, serving a total of 2100 residents each month. 

Director Amy Cooper said WIC helps pregnant women during their pregnancy and up to a year postpartum, and helps children up to age five.

“It can be something as simple as a recipe or how to introduce solids to a new infant…,” Cooper said. “(We) could help them, give them tips for picky eater that home. Or maybe mom’s pregnant and really nauseated, so we give her some tips on how she can still meet her nutrient needs for a healthy pregnancy while she’s not feeling well.”

WIC’s food benefits come on a card which families can use to purchase approved items at a grocery store each month. An average child’s food package contains four gallons of milk, 36 ounces of cereal, a dozen eggs, peanut butter or beans, two bottles of juice and $8 for fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

“I feel serving our families is very rewarding,” Cooper said. “We tend to create relationships with by them coming back every six months; we get to know the family, if they have multiple children, we do get to know them. Year after year, we watch their children grow.”

women and children talking
A stock photo from Women, Infants, and Children shows an example of personal interaction the organization tries to uphold, says Director Amy Cooper. Courtesy of Amy Cooper, WIC.


Pamela said going to WIC helped her out during the beginning stages of motherhood when she stumbled into a roadblock and didn’t know what to do.

“I had gotten so sick that I couldn’t breastfeed her anymore, so I had to get  formula and everything,” she said. “They helped me pick the formula and they helped me pay for eggs and cheese. … It helped out a lot.”

In Kent, the non-profit Coleman Pregnancy Center works to promote maternal mental health and provides support and resources for moms who need a place to go. The Center offers counseling, supplies, and pregnancy and parenting classes — all at no cost to the participants.

Ru Conaway, the program coordinator and counselor for the center, said the majority of its income comes from fundraising efforts and donations. Although finances are often tight, she said Coleman’s staff works hard to make parents comfortable.

“We believe that given the right amount of support, every parent would choose a healthy life for their baby,” Conaway said. “So we want parents to come in and leave with 100% more support than what they had.”

While most pregnancy and parenting centers offer an “earn as you learn” program, where parents come in for classes and get material goods for attending, the Coleman Pregnancy Center uses a different approach. Individuals can get points to redeem for material goods by going to school, to doctor’s appointments, to work, to church, or doing other productive things.

Ru Conaway
Ru Conaway, project coordinator and counselor for the Coleman Pregnancy Center, poses in front of a “family tree” of children the Center has assisted.
“They can be as involved as they need to be, they can get as many points as they need to get stuff,” Conaway said. “We want to obviously engage and encourage moms to be responsible, but at the same time, we don’t do handouts. Our material goods systems really gets our moms thinking,  am I going to get points for this thing I’m about to do? A.K.A., is this thing healthy for me and my baby?”

Conaway said while there are resources in Portage County for babies, the mothers are often forgotten about.

clothes hanging up
While messy, the Pregnancy Center room in the Coleman building is filled with both donated and purchased clothes and supplies.

“There’s a ton of resources for babies,” she said. “There’s not a lot of resources for moms. Especially for moms who make just above the (poverty) income limit, which is why I am so defensive of our lack of requirements. You just need help. You just have to need help to come to us.”

Angela DiGiacomo, a Kent State graduate who recently had a baby girl, said being able to go to counseling at the center for no cost gave her something to look forward to outside of her home.

“It’s definitely really isolating,” DiGiacomo said. “That’s why I love coming (to Coleman) every week, because it kind of breaks up the loneliness.”

Conaway agrees that she’s seen a lot of isolation in her clients, and she is determined to keep working with the pregnancy center to provide relief and awareness for married and single mothers.

“There are a lot of moms who have multiple kids and life just swallows them up because they are trying to take care of this kid, and this kid, and this one’s a baby, and this one’s in diapers, and this one is running around and throwing stuff and hitting the dog and peeing on the floor, and this one’s crying and she can’t… like, there’s nothing for them.”

Conaway said it’s easy for community members to get involved in maternal wellness, and suggests that people interested in maternal health start a support group near their home or apartment building. Other than that, she says awareness and education is key.

More information on the Coleman Pregnancy Center can be found at colemanservices.org. For Women, Infants, and Children, visit https://www.fns.usda.gov/wic/women-infants-and-children-wic.