Natasha Kirsch wants to break the cycle of unemployment and poverty — with clippers

Tanisha Davis, her face mostly hidden under a red baseball cap, grips a brush and strokes the coat of a Siberian husky named Smokey. White fur glides to the floor. Littermate Homie waits his turn in a crate in the next room. Across the room, Danielle Simpson works on another dog. The two women would like to open their own business together, prettying animals like Smokey and Homie — using skills they’ve learned over the past six months, in the Grooming Project

Four days before the school graduates its first class, a representative from PetSmart is here, evaluating Simpson. A job at one of its stores could mean a new life.

“She’s the motivated one,” Davis says as she points to Simpson. The new friends met here at the Grooming Project (5829 Troost), part of Empowering Parents to Empower the Child, an organization that aims to help people — particularly those with criminal records or whose education stalled out too early — find good jobs.

EPEC and the Grooming Project are the vision of Natasha Kirsch, who has experience with nonprofit outfits — and whose mother kept the family going by grooming pets. When Kirsch talks about breaking the cycle of poverty and underemployment that single parents face when trying to provide for their kids, she conveys genuine understanding.

Davis finishes with Smokey and returns the animal to the kennel room. A few minutes later, it’s Homie’s time in the wash room. Davis squeezes a shampoo bottle and then sprays water until the dog’s fur clings to its body. Lather, suds, rinse: Homie is clean.

Davis is living in a weekly rental while her children stay with her mother. Before she applied for the Grooming Project, she was working in home health care, where the pay ranged from $8 to $12 an hour. She has a high school diploma (from F. L. Schlagle High School in Kansas City, Kansas), but there’s a strike against her: a felony conviction for attempted forgery, 12 years ago.

“I just dealt with it,” she says. “The hard part is that it follows me.”

So she has come to the Grooming Project, bringing with her an enthusiasm for dogs — she dotes on her family’s six Yorkies — and the hope that something better awaits.

As Davis heads for her lunch break, grooming teacher Samantha Calvert looks up from a desk and mentions an appointment the next day, a possible start toward building a client base.

“You have to be here tomorrow,” Calvert tells her. “They specifically asked for you.”

The Grooming Project is adjacent to Spay & Neuter Kansas City, on a strip of Troost that has enjoyed an uptick in traffic and businesses recently. Cars often cram the parking lots at Aaron’s furniture rental and Whitney Auto Collision.

Inside the school’s building, a hum of blow dryers and a chorus of barks compete with Kirsch’s friendly greeting. She shows me a copy of a letter she just received endorsing her enterprise.

“In the Kansas City market, I anticipate needing 20/year over the next several years to accommodate growth and to replace turnover,” writes David Michael of PetSmart. “We believe that the training that the Grooming Project provides their students meets our conditions for consideration for hire.” The pay ranges from $35,000 to $70,000 annually, the letter says.

This is just what Kirsch had in mind. And now, six students — four of whom had felony convictions, two of whom were homeless at the beginning — have made it through the first iteration of her program. They’ve shown up daily for six months to learn how to groom pets — and how to better manage their own lives — for $160 a week in compensation.

“There are so many different barriers — transportation, the weather, and whether to have an outside job,” Kirsch says. “I am constantly telling them they have to invest in themselves.” For Davis and the others, that investment has meant some 644 training hours apiece, on the path to passing practical and written exams.

And Kirsch herself has logged thousands of hours over the past five years to reach this first graduation. The office is now 10 percent self-sufficient, with money coming from the grooming business. The calendar stays booked enough that the space can no longer take walk-in customers.

“It’s been a lot of rejection — constant rejection,” Kirsch says. “It’s been overcoming that and believing in myself, regardless of what someone else is telling me. Suddenly, now that we are in operation, everyone thinks it’s a great idea. It’s like, where were you three years ago?”

Kirsch grew up in Princeton, Iowa, a town of about 1,000. She says she ran away from that tiny community, but where she landed wasn’t a metropolis. In Alta, Utah, she served coffee and lived in a hotel before meeting her ex-husband and moving with him to the Washington, D.C., area for his job. She worked at the American Institute for Cancer Research.

They had a son, Will, and Kirsch says she soon faced the working woman’s dilemma: “Do I work and pay all of my money to child care?” Her solution was to open a daycare, directing a staff of three.

In the summer of 2008, after their daughter was born, the family moved to be closer to family in Iowa and Kansas City. Kirsch began volunteering at Healing House, where she worked with recovering alcoholics and addicts. There, she met a woman named Barbie.

“I realized they [people like Barbie] had the drive to do whatever they needed to do, but they had messed up so badly when they were 20 years old that nobody was willing to take a chance on them,” Kirsch says. “They had that felony record, or they dropped out of high school. To make money to support their family, they had to sell drugs or sell their body. A lot of people I worked with were trying to get out of that lifestyle.”

Meanwhile, Kirsch occasionally helped her mother, a dog groomer, place want ads in the paper because she needed help.

“She said, ‘I don’t have enough help and I’m always turning [customers] away,” Kirsch recalls. “I told her, ‘I wish I could bus you here, because I have women here who need good jobs.’ ”

Kirsch did some research and found that pet groomers could earn up to $20 an hour. An idea began to form: a nonprofit with a two-generation approach, centered on the occupation that had worked for her own mother. But the idea required business skills Kirsch didn’t yet possess.

“It was in 2011 that I went to graduate school [at the University of Missouri–Kansas City], and I actually got kicked out of graduate school because my GRE scores weren’t high enough,” Kirsch says. She laughs and goes on: “I’ve never tested well, and at that point I was devastated and thought I was too stupid to do graduate school. But Barbie, a homeless mom I worked with — I kept telling her to go back to school and she kept telling me that she wasn’t smart enough to go back to school. So I decided that if I was going to try to push other people outside of their comfort level, I was going to have to try to find another way in.”

She returned to graduate school in 2012 when a new program allowed her management experience to offset her GRE scores. There, in the Bloch School of Management, she reframed her grooming idea as a response to the Levitt Challenge, which encourages social entrepreneurs to solve a community problem.

“Natasha in many ways had laser focus and had experience in nonprofit and firsthand with grooming,” says her adviser, Scott Helm. He adds: “She is relentless.”

At the same time, a different challenge emerged: Kirsch and her husband divorced in 2013.

“At that point, my career was not an important one in the household,” she says. After that, though, she needed it to be.

So she began calling people and telling them about the program she’d devised, EPEC. At the Red Door Center, at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, she was given office space and mentors who connected her with people to start a capital campaign. In May 2015, with a year of alimony as a safety net, Kirsch resigned from her job as volunteer coordinator at Reach Out and Read to focus on the Grooming Project. Will and her daughter, Elli, came along for board meetings and stamped mailings, and they’re constant presences in the office today.

“We live here now,” Kirsch says.

An estimated 23.5 percent of children, and 28.6 percent of children younger than 6, lived in poverty in Jackson County in 2014, according to Missouri Kids Count Data, which bases its estimates on U.S. Census data and sample surveys. The agency says 43.3 percent of the county’s children live in single-parent households.

Those numbers show undeniable need, but asking the city for money seemed like a long shot.

“We were already thinking they were probably going to say no,” says Chelsea Hodges, a former graduate school colleague of Kirsch’s who is now vice president of the EPEC board. “We were already starting to think where we would ask next.”

Kirsch presented her plan anyway. And she hadn’t come unprepared. She showed the city a renovation-cost estimate from J.E. Dunn and a pledge of $10,000 from a foundation.

City officials granted $100,000 in funding, contingent upon Kirsch finding a separate $100,000 to get started. The city also wrote a 10-year lease for EPEC’s Troost space — for $1 a month.

“That was the moment when it was like, this is gonna happen,” Hodges says.

Bob Langenkamp, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City, credits businessman and civic promoter Bill “Doc” Worley, who now serves on EPEC’s advisory board, for selling him on the idea.

“They were in a capital fundraising campaign, and I went and toured the facility,” Langenkamp says. “This was city property, and in essence the city agreed to invest on a matching basis on improving their own project. It was a win-win, and a great, worthy program, since the city owned the building and it was putting money into the facility.”

It helped, too, that the business could bolster Troost.

“It was a golden opportunity to do several positive things,” Langenkamp says.

In the heart of Grandview, where 135th Street turns into Botts Road, is the Armacost Museum, home to a vintage car collection that lends itself as a fundraising venue. Tonight, amid the Depression-era Studebakers, it’s the site of a celebration for the Grooming Project’s first six graduates. The women, along with philanthropists and EPEC supporters, eat catered food and watch images of themselves over the past six months flash across a large screen.

Tanisha Davis enters the showroom. She has left the red cap she wore a few days ago at home. Her jaw is straight, her chin raised, she is transformed in a long black dress with white embellishments.

“You can take a picture of me now,” she says, laughing, as she makes her way to the table reserved for her and her classmates, next to the stage.

The next day, the parking lot at St. Andrew’s slowly fills as greeters usher guests to a downstairs room where chairs have been set up in front of another stage. Davis’ parents watch, near the front, having traveled early in the morning from a family reunion in Arkansas to make sure they could attend. Their daughter and the other women climb the steps and are handed their diplomas. Each also gets a long-stemmed red rose.

Connie Davis smiles as her daughter poses for pictures following the ceremony. “It is something she truly has a passion for,” she says of pet grooming.
Kirsch, too, has found her calling.

“You become empowered when you help other people,” she says. “And when they are helping their kids, they become empowered.”

A new class of students begins training at the Grooming Project on August 15. This time, there is space for nine students.

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