CHEYENNE – Climb Wyoming has helped Melissa Shell see her options – and chart her future.

Shell, a single mom to two young children in Cheyenne, said she first heard about the nonprofit when a flyer arrived in her mailbox.

“I didn’t know anything about it at all,” Shell said of the nonprofit, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. She set the card aside, but another one came.

“So I went to an informational meeting, and they really just pulled me in by being so honest,” Shell said.

Climb Wyoming is a statewide nonprofit whose mission is for low-income single mothers to discover self-sufficiency through career training and placement. Founded in 1986 by psychologist Dr. Ray Fleming Dinneen, Climb began as a summer program in Cheyenne and has expanded to six sites across Wyoming. Climb has impacted 950 moms and 1,500 children in the Cheyenne area.

Climb’s certified nursing assistant course appealed to Shell because she’s a caregiver by nature. She began caring for both her mother and her stepfather just out of high school.

“I spent a lot of years taking care of my mom, and felt like that was my calling, especially after having my own two kids. It was something that I enjoyed doing, and I want to help people,” Shell said.

But being a single mother is not easy. Finding a job that pays a livable wage is difficult, and barriers to job training, education and child care are real issues. Poverty that is passed down from one generation to the next creates significant barriers to job success, Climb says, and can trap low-income single mothers and their children in a cycle that women can find challenging to break.

To break the cycle, Climb Wyoming focuses on teaching women industry-specific skills and workplace skills, along with coursework on parenting, budgeting, nutrition and other topics important to participants. After three months, Climb assists with job placements that focus on helping women dramatically increase their income by identifying a career that’s the right fit for their strengths and priorities.

“They definitely gave me the training that I needed, the knowledge that I needed and emotional support,” Shell said. “It’s a struggle to be a single mom and to look for employment. You don’t have the support of a significant other, or someone to watch your kids when you need the help. Climb helped me to see that I had other options, and that there was a way to get where I wanted to be.”

Misty Savage, Climb’s Cheyenne program director, said Shell is a natural caregiver who worked hard throughout her training.

“Melissa has done a fabulous job of setting a foundation for her kids, and finding the support she needs to be the natural caregiver she is,” Savage said. Shell has already received a few job offers, and is considering her future with the goal of becoming a counselor one day.

Climb staff talk all the time about overcoming barriers, just like their participants, Savage said, and through the pandemic, they focused even more on their core values.

“Barriers for single moms are always going to be out there, and COVID has helped us think outside the box. We often say that we want to meet moms where they are,” she explained. “And that is something we talk about all the time: How do we overcome barriers together? COVID created brand new barriers that allowed us to come together to solve them.”

One of Climb’s core values is to build the organization based on participants’ needs, Savage said. That means listening to the barriers, as described by the participants themselves, with the goal of helping women learn to support and provide for their families in the long term.

“That was always the mission, but COVID came in and shook everything up,” she said. “Having that core mission allowed us to survive the pandemic. It allowed us to continue to help moms as we have for the last 35 years, and that’s what I see for the next 35 years.”

Shell said it was a struggle to leave her children, even for the Climb programming.

“My son – it was a really big struggle for Mommy not to be there. It was something I had to give a lot of thought to; like, is this program really going to benefit me enough to leave him in the afternoons? The time away from him, I worried about how much he would struggle,” she said. “After sitting down and going through the initial process, I made up my mind that this was something that was going to benefit us, maybe not in the next month, but down the road.”

Climb’s program model has been recognized nationally as one of the best programs in the country for moving families out of poverty, with graduates consistently doubling their monthly income. In the last 35 years, Climb has saved the state of Wyoming $117 million from decreased dependence on public assistance programs among graduates, according to Climb officials. Climb graduates have contributed 44 million hours of work to Wyoming’s economy, meeting the unique workforce needs of each community.

The Cheyenne program features trainings in short-haul truck driving, pipefitting, office and health care careers. Recently, the program has trained many moms to work in essential positions in health care and transportation, filling critical shortages during the pandemic.

“Climb graduates are smart, talented and motivated, and they’ve responded with courage to the many challenges the past year has thrown their way,” Savage said. “They make Wyoming’s workforce, and our communities, stronger as they move their families from surviving to thriving.”

Shell said she gave a speech at her Climb graduation, and in it, she said that she once had an “I don’t know” life.

“I think that at some point in our lives, we’ve all had an ‘I don’t know’ life. We don’t know how we will support our kids, or what we are going to do next year,” she said. “I can honestly say that now that I have gone through Climb, I don’t have an ‘I don’t know’ anymore.”