Muzz Meyers career path was anything but expected. After earning a master’s degree in teaching he was set on finding a job in his field. Instead, a friend convinced him to open a restaurant.
“I thought that would last a couple of years, and then I would just go back to teaching,” Meyers recalls.
The restaurant stint ended up lasting 18 years. Once it was over, he did finally get back into the teaching world. Working with a nonprofit called Communities In Schools, he was placed at Westinghouse High School in Homewood and started connecting students to various support programs and services. That’s where he met a 17-year-old student with six-month-old twins who would change his course again.
“She was bringing her babies to school every day, and I was just looking out for her,” he said. “She had a younger brother, and one day they both didn’t come to school, and I was concerned. I had never done this before and never did it after, but I drove to their house to check on them, and I found her brother outside on their porch heating up water on a charcoal grill so he could take a hot bath. He invited me into the house, and it was a turning point in my life.”
Meyers took in the brother and a secretary at the school took in the young woman while they helped the family improve their living situation. But it was only a short-term solution.
“Fast forward, about three years. Their mother had passed away from cancer, and the young lady now had another child and was living with her brothers. She called my wife and said, ‘I can’t live like this anymore. Come and take me to a shelter.’ We did that, and then we went home and said we can’t let these little boys grow up like this. Because we knew that she would be placed in a housing project somewhere around Pittsburgh, probably isolated, and probably not in a safe place.”
That’s when the idea for the Day One Project was born. A friend of Meyers agreed to pay for the young woman’s rent as long as she was working towards something, and it proved to be a game-changer. No longer needing to worry about rent, she could make progress towards her goals and get ahead.
“I had participated in many programs at Westinghouse with huge budgets that had virtually no long-lasting impact on the children,” Meyers explained. I thought that this was a much better way to spend money, so I started trying to figure out how I could do it.”
By 2018, Meyers eventually raised enough money—mainly through donations from friends and family—to rent a home in East Liberty for five single mother families with children under the age of three. Women in the Day One Project can live there for two years, paying only 15% of their income in rent and program fees, with the stipulation that they set a goal for their future and take steps to make it happen. To help them do that, they are required to meet with a case manager and workforce development specialist once a week as well as participate in a financial literacy course and Saturday workshops that cover everything from restorative parenting practices to self-care.
After the two years are up, the women receive a Section 8 voucher and can stay connected to the program as much or as little as they want.
The Day One Project name was inspired by early childhood education research that shows the impact of the first three years of a child’s life on their future academic success.
“That’s an integral part of the program as well, educating the parents from day one to engage, talk, and read to their children in order for them to develop cognitively to the appropriate level,” Meyers said.
Nikkia Coates has been a manager of the Day One program almost from the start. She explained that the program is successful because it’s based on the fundamental principle that when you let someone choose their own goals and support them in what they want to do, they’re more committed.
“Typically, people don’t need you to tell them what to do. They just need support,” she said.
Meyers echoed that sentiment: “By paying their rent and helping them access other services, the program gives these women an opportunity to stop and consider their future and what they’re able to do. That’s the big obstacle they face, and the other obstacle is just gaining the confidence in themselves in terms of what they’re capable of.”
Announced in 2021, The Day One Project is now part of Catapult Greater Pittsburgh’s suite of services. Catapult is a nonprofit focused on creating economic justice opportunities for individuals and families across Pittsburgh. The two organizations had already been working together, with Catapult providing services to Day One participants.
“Catapult is super supportive—to single parents, minorities, they promote homeownership, financial literacy—and those are the core things that we try to instill into the Day One Project. So, it was a natural transition to collaborate with them,” Coates said.
Catapult plans to expand the program in 2022 and are looking for a space in Pittsburgh that can accommodate more women. Witnessing the success of the program firsthand, Meyers and Coates are both excited at the prospect. For them, the proof is in the stories.
“We have a woman in the program who had a job when she started with Day One, but she needed to take a course to advance and make a sustainable wage. Putting her in the Day One house allowed her the time to take the course so that she could get a promotion at her job. Now she not only has a better job, but she’s also in the homeownership program at Catapult. Her next step is to purchase a house because now she has the income to match her vision. That’s a pretty big deal.”
Visit catapultpittsburgh.org to learn more.