Kirsch is the founder and executive director of the Kansas City-based nonprofit group Empowering the Parent to Empower the Child, also known as EPEC.
The organization operates The Grooming Project, a pilot program with a mission of helping parents break the cycle of poverty for their families by training them for high-demand, high-paying careers as pet groomers.
The idea for EPEC dates back to 2011, when Kirsch was working for a recovery home helping people struggling with addiction.
She said she saw how hard it was for parents without a high school education or with a felony on their record to find flexible jobs. She also learned of the so-called “benefits cliff” — where parents earning a certain amount of money full-time lose access to such benefits as food stamps or housing and childcare subsidies — yet still can’t make ends meet.
“What happens is they had to quit the job [and] go back on welfare to actually support their family, which seemed absolutely ridiculous to me,” she said. “So I was trying to figure out if there was a way where, if they could get a job that was in such demand that even ex-felons could get a job, and then one that paid a living wage . . . maybe that was the solution.”
Kirsch’s only problem: She didn’t immediately know what that job was. Then, one day while driving home, she took a call from her mother, who is herself a pet groomer.
“She said, ‘I need another groomer. I’ll take any warm body who walks through the door. Put an ad in the paper,’” Kirsch said. “I always did my mom’s business side of things from afar, and I thought about it, and I was like, ‘Well, maybe there’s actually a demand for groomers here in Kansas City.’”
She researched the job market and found there is a need for more groomers nationally. Additionally, she said groomers can make $35,000 to $70,000 a year, don’t need formal education and can have a felony on their records.
She tabled the idea while she went back to school to obtain her executive master’s degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Henry W. Bloch School of Management so she could find a way to bring those ideas together.
At UMKC, she drew up her first business plan for EPEC as part of the Aaron L. Levitt Challenge for Social Entrepreneurship.
Students were tasked with presenting innovative ideas to serve the Kansas City area. Kirsch’s idea for EPEC was selected by a panel of judges as a “Changemaker” — or winner — which gave the fledgling organization access to office space at UMKC, mentors and an executive coach.
Kirsch said that win allowed EPEC to move forward and make connections with organizations such as the Red Door Center for Social Entrepreneurship, a program at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. Mentors at the center helped her further refine her business plan and make connections with people in the community.
One of those connections ultimately helped EPEC secure $100,000 in grant funding from the City of Kansas City. She said that was the tipping point for EPEC that allowed it to take off.
“Before then, I was knocking on every door, nobody was answering, making every phone call, nobody was picking up the phone and it was because, ‘Who the hell am I?’” she said, noting that dozens of other nonprofits organizations in Kansas City also are seeking funding.
She said once the city agreed to come on board, others followed suit. Within five months, the organization had secured all of the funding it needed to launch.
She said the grant from the city helped the organization to renovate and equip its space at 5829 Troost Ave. The funding also included support in the form of reduced rent and utilities — as part of the deal, EPEC pays only $1 a month for the space and utilities, and the agreement is for 10 years.
‘Crash course on life’
The Grooming Project opened its doors in early 2016. Since then, it has graduated 42 students, all of whom have been placed in grooming jobs after graduation.
Kirsch said the project seeks individuals with multiple barriers to entering the job market. Prospective students also must have children.
“It can vary a bit, but really the majority of the folks that we serve are coming from generational poverty,” she said.
Often, the students come from backgrounds where they had to raise themselves, and they now find themselves raising their children without having had role models themselves, she said.
“It’s kind of a crash course on life, and how you can make things better for your kids even though things may have really sucked for you growing up,” she said.
In order to graduate and obtain a grooming certificate — the school is a state-certified facility — each student must complete 644 hours of hands-on grooming. Students also must pass five separate breed-specific tests, which include a practical exam with an instructor, and pass a written final test.
While the program may take one person six months to complete, it might take another nine months.
Outside of the hands-on work with dogs, the program also offers participants an education in life skills, such as budgeting and parenting.
Kirsch said students are given a weekly stipend of $125 to help cover things they need, but they remain on benefits until they complete the program.
To help students navigate a variety of problems they may face, she said the group works with professionals to assist them in getting what they need to keep moving forward in the program, whether it’s a lawyer to help with legal problems or a dentist to help with routine teeth cleaning or root canals.
Kirsch said that after graduation, the program continues to assist students for up to a year and a half. She said that’s especially crucial because it can be tough for families to navigate away from benefits when they become employed full-time.
To help with that, The Grooming Project also has an emergency-assistance budget for students. She said a lot of families struggle with the transition.
“What we tell them is, ‘Take the leap. We’ve got your back,’” Kirsch said. “We’ll make sure all your other stuff, you can cover it. And then they do.”
In May, the project opened its first salon, in Lee’s Summit. The salon is a place where graduates can find their footing if they’re not ready for an outside company just yet, as well as an incubator for graduates to start their own business or learn management skills, Kirsch said.
Kirsch said she hopes to open three more salons in the Kansas City area.
Today, Kirsch said the organization has annual budget of about $1.2 million. About a third of the group’s revenues come from its annual fundraising gala. She said the group hopes to raise $375,000 at its event in September.
She added that part of the organization’s mission is to bring in its own revenue through offering grooming services to the public.
The salon also is a source of revenue, she said. By the time the salon reaches its third year, the group hopes it will be generating $150,000 to $180,000 in profit that can be funneled back to the school.
She noted that already, students provide reduced-rate services from the Troost location, which accounts for about $85,000 annually.
She noted that all of those funds go directly to the students in the form of their stipends.
Kirsch said other income comes from grants and individual donors.
She said the process was a struggle, however — money didn’t start coming in until a few other people took the lead to donate to the organization.
“Until you get money behind your name, you have no credibility,” she said. “That was a lesson I learned the hard way. It took me over three years to figure that out, but I got it figured out.”
While fundraising was difficult, Kirsch said another difficulty she’s encountered as executive director has been managing employees. The organization has 13 people on staff total, including Kirsch.
She said she’s taken management classes and read management books, but she’s leaned heavily on her mentors for advice.
“One of the hardest things is trying to take the folks who have the most barriers to employment, who are hardest to employ, and teach them to groom dogs while still dealing with all those barriers, and we’re still running a real business at the same time,” she said.
Kirsch said an added difficulty involved hiring staff before the organization had laid much of a foundation for them through policies, procedures and shared institutional values.
“We’re building the car as we’re driving it down the highway,” she said. “That’s when things get really tough because everybody sees things from a different way. If you don’t have those policies and procedures in place, those organizational values, it makes it tough to keep everybody together.”
Changing the cycle
Kirsch said she never expected to become involved in social entrepreneurship.
“I was a Middle Eastern studies major in college,” she said. “But I ran a daycare after that, and I realized how important early childhood education is, and if you want to reach the kid really young, you’ve got to go through mom or dad.”
Kirsch said the mission at the heart of EPEC — stabilizing and raising up families — is close to her heart because of her own family’s story.
She said her mother grew up in a family similar to those of many of the grooming students, but she avoided teenage pregnancy and addiction, and found a career in grooming.
Kirsch said her mother made her and her siblings her central focus.
“Everything that she did was for us, and it was complete sacrifice,” she said, adding that her mother groomed at home so she could be involved in her children’s lives.
As a teen, Kirsch said she tried cigarettes and beer, but her mom always caught her because she was at home.
“I truly believed that she changed the cycle for me and my siblings from what she might have had,” she said. “And it worked, so why not help other people do it that way, too?”
‘I have a lot of options’
On a recent weekday, students filled the grooming space at the Troost location. Using electric trimmers, students gave their canine clients their summer haircuts.
Stephanie Reith was grooming Bella, a small dog.
Reith is two months into the program. She discovered it through a transitional housing program, where she saw information about The Grooming Project posted.
“I was working at [a fast-food restaurant] and felt it was dead-end job,” she said, adding that she thought she’d give grooming a try.
Reith said she never has owned a dog but has found working with them to be calming.
“It really helps with my anxiety,” she said.
Reith added that her 7-year-old son approves of her new career track.
“He loves hearing about the dogs,” she said.
Reith said she is looking forward to completing the program. Already, she’s done a Google search for companies that hire groomers near where she lives in Liberty, she said.
“I have a lot of options,” she said.
Alyssa Phillips can attest to those options. She’s not yet done with the program, but she has already snagged a job at a salon — appropriately named Pawsitively Purrfect — and she’s excited to start it.
Phillips, a mother of three, said she’s appreciated The Grooming Project’s advocacy on behalf of its students. From helping them with legal issues to even helping cover car repairs, she said it makes a big difference.
“It is very huge when you have nowhere else to turn to,” she said. “I’m very, very grateful. A lot of people don’t get an opportunity like this.”
She said the program allows students “to go from having nothing to being able to have a career and support our families.”
“This is a trade that nobody can take away from us,” she said.