Andrea Cattani and a friend were shopping at Costco when she said she may not return to college because juggling school, work, and childcare costs for her infant daughter were overwhelming. At the time, the single mom was so strapped, she barely had money for gas and diapers.

Then a stranger who had overheard their conversation stepped forward with information that changed Cattani’s life. She told her about Mom’s House, a small, Phoenixville-based charity that provides free day care so low-income, single parents can continue their education.

That night Cattani called Mom’s House and put in an application. Soon after, she and her daughter, Logan, then 6 months old, were accepted into the charity’s program.

“I probably would have given up school,” said Cattani, 22, of Upper Merion. Now a senior psychology major at West Chester University, she works full-time as a fork-lift driver for Costco and is thinking of pursuing her master’s degree.

“They give you a sense of independence,” Cattani said of Mom’s House. “The community there made me feel stronger.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about half of teen mothers go on to earn a high school degree by age 22. Their children are more at risk for health problems and lower school achievement: They tend to drop out of high school, give birth as a teens, be incarcerated at some time during their adolescence and face unemployment as young adults at a higher rate than others.

Andrea Cattani with her two-year-old daughter Logan, in Upper Merion.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Andrea Cattani with her two-year-old daughter Logan, in Upper Merion.

Mom’s House hopes to break that cycle by providing free childcare for children ages 3 months to 5 years old while their single parents continue full-time education — whether they’re in high school, studying for a GED, or attending a technical school or college. Most of the parents choose schools that are close to Mom’s House, including Immaculata University, Montgomery Community College, and Lansdale School of Business.

“Childcare is what we do, but that is not our mission,” said Wendy J. McKeon, executive director of Mom’s House.

The goal, she said, is to keep the family off public assistance and help parents get the education they need for higher-paying careers. The state-licensed day-care serves about 15 children at a time, providing meals, diapers, clothing, and other essentials.

In return, parents must volunteer two hours a week at the day-care, cleaning or helping with office work. They’re also required to attend monthly parenting sessions, which cover a variety of topics like how to make a monthly budget, cooking, and even resume-writing. To date, the 33-year-old organization has provided assistance to 300 parents and 330 children.

“We are basically just here for them,” said McKeon, adding that the parents often come from families where education has not necessarily been a priority.

One of those parents, Nancy Fountain, now sits on the executive board of Mom’s House.

Back in 2009, there was “no way” Fountain, then 18, could have afforded childcare for her son, Matthew Hammer Jr., now 12, and an apartment on what she was earning.

Fountain, now a senior contract analyst for Accenture, a consulting firm, was a student at Perkiomen Valley High School when a teacher and school nurse helped her contact Mom’s House. They knew her goal was to be the first in her family to go to college. With the help of Mom’s House, grants, other funding for school — and a lot of discipline — Fountain was able to graduate debt-free from West Chester University.

"It’s a family,” Fountain said of Mom’s House, where the staff, teachers, directors, and volunteers all get to know the children and clients. They were there to help when she needed support and advice. “It is so much more than a chain childcare could provide.”

Fountain, 31, of Skippack Township, said the program changed her life. After graduation, she bought a house, which she sold when she met and married her husband. Today they have three boys, ages 8 weeks, 3 and 12 years old.

The mission of Mom’s House recently caught the eye of volunteers at Next Level Trainings, a leadership program whose members help worthy causes. Next Level was able to raise $110,000 for the charity, which relies solely on donors for funding.

The program’s volunteers felt a strong connection to the mission of Mom’s House, said Taylor Barto, 26, of Manayunk, a Next Level member.

To celebrate the conclusion of their fund-raiser, the 38 Next Level volunteers recently hosted (pre-coronavirus) “Family Heart to Heart — Poetry for Parents and Kids at Home,” a virtual check signing, and a donor-appreciation gala.

“It’s a celebration of the work they’re doing,” said Barto.

When the group contacted McKeon of Mom’s House about doing a fund-raiser, she was shocked. She had never heard of Next Level and was struck by their generosity.

“This will certainly help us as we head into a very uncertain year,” said McKeon, referring to the pandemic and possible recession. “It makes me want to cry. It takes a huge weight off my shoulders.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.