The moment really hit 40-year-old Danielle Simpson on the dance floor as she pranced about doing disco moves in a donated red, spaghetti-strap gown.
“I can’t believe I’m here,” she said. “A lot happened this year, so much. I’m nervous about what comes next. But I feel like now I’m ready. I’m not going back to that old life.”
It was the night before her graduation from a six-month course to teach women how to groom dogs — and begin to turn their lives around.
For Simpson, a struggling single mother, baggy jeans and T-shirts had more than suited her as she fought to recover from a year and a half of loss — the death of her teenaged son, her grandmother slipping into illness and dementia, her mother suffering a stroke, and her own bout with homelessness.
She had frowned, at first, at the idea of picking through donated dresses for a gown. But slipping into dress after beautiful dress, her reluctance melted. Her elusive smile appeared, revealing the glint of a gold front tooth.
She had no idea how good it would feel to shed her old threads for shiny new ones. Or how good the the next day would feel as she graduated along with five other women in the first class of an innovative new Kansas City social service program, called EPEC — or Empower Parents to Empower Children.
Using a training course called “The Grooming Project,” EPEC helps women claim a path out of poverty. Students train Monday through Thursday, mostly working with two instructors on pets brought in by customers for a $12 wash and clip.
Simpson became the project’s poster child, with her face on pamphlets and in fund-raising videos.
“She’s a natural,” said Natasha Kirsch, who started the nonprofit EPEC. They call Simpson “the dog whisperer,” because of the way she would sing and coo and calm frightened pups.
The Kansas City Star met Simpson in January on the first day of the Grooming Project class. She agreed to let The Star check in from time to time along her journey toward landing a good-paying job with full benefits — a journey that vividly displays the sometimes tortuous path many face toward a better life.
From the time they met, Kirsch and Simpson had a lot riding on EPEC and the idea that one woman’s vision could change another woman’s life.
Kirsch knew that the first class would be the measuring stick EPEC donors and supporters would use to determine the worth of the five years she’d put into making the program a reality.
EPEC would teach the women everything from managing household expenses to strapping a child seat in a car and getting to work on time.
If the women could become certified pet stylists, improve their employment status, make a living wage and learn to manage their lives socially, emotionally and financially, EPEC would succeed.
“It’s not just job training like at a vocational college,” Kirsch said. “You still need to have all of those wrap-around services.”
As soon as U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver heard Kirsch’s plan he was hooked. At the graduation gala where Cleaver was keynote speaker, he told a room full of potential EPEC donors that “while a lot of training programs are well intended, they don’t really offer real jobs.”
Cleaver said he believed The Grooming Project was one of the few school-to-work programs for poor women that “would actually work.”
Simpson wanted in from the moment her mother told her she’d heard a news story that Kansas City was giving Kirsch a $100,000 grant to lease and equip a building at 5829 Troost Ave., next door to Spay & Neuter KC.
“I love animals. I love dogs, and I knew this was something I really needed to do,” Simpson said as she began classes in January.
A great idea
Kirsch started her social work volunteering in recovery homes for addicts and survivors of domestic violence.
“I realized.” Kirsch said, “that a lot of the single moms that I was working with in the shelters had three or four kids, had dropped out of high school, some had felonies on their record and were often four or five years away from getting a GED,” Kirsch said. They had no skills that would qualify them for a job that could support a family.
“We did the research,” said Karen Williams, a member of the EPEC board of directors. “The numbers told us that none of them would make it.”
Kirsch determined that any job that the women might get had to pay more than the $10 an hour paid to many fast-food workers.
That salary, at 40 hours a week, would only put the women a hair above the poverty line but would cost them government benefits. “Yet in reality,” Kirsch said, “they still wouldn’t be able to pay their bills. The way public policy is set up it didn’t pay to work.”
With that in mind, Kirsch sought to identify a trade for which her women did not need a higher education and where having a felony arrest record — which some have — didn’t matter because the demand for the skill was so high.
One day she was talking about her idea with her mom, an Iowa businesswoman who owns a pet grooming salon. That was 2011.
Kirsch’s mom had seven groomers working for her and couldn’t keep up with the demand. But she had a hard time finding enough groomers to hire.
The grooming project idea was planted.
Kirsch said she knew the average rate of pay for groomers was $14 to $36 an hour.
In 2012 Kirsch went back to graduate school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Among other things, she wanted to research her belief that the chain of poverty could be broken in two generations. In other words, get a parent out of poverty and the children will prosper, too.
A year later at the UMKC Henry W. Bloch School of Management, Kirsch won the Aaron Levitt Social Entrepreneurship Challenge with her EPEC dog groomers concept.
“I never went a day without thinking about it, or dreaming about it happening,” Kirsch said.
Help came from generous people and groups. The Curry Family Foundation gave EPEC its first $10,000. St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church gave her office space.
The city gave Kirsch’s EPEC a grant and approved a lease agreement of a dollar a month for 10 years on a garage that had been sitting vacant on Troost Avenue for about 30 years.
“We came in and lifted up the garage door and there was hay and mice and bugs and it was the perfect space,” Kirsch said. It took about six months and $215,000 worth of renovation and equipment to transform the garage into a grooming school.
Desperate for a change
As a child, Simpson thought she’d grow up and become a veterinarian. But she never went to college. She had four children. She never married. “I have four babies’ daddies,” she said.
“I didn’t want that life for her,” said Rita Carliss, Simpson’s mom. “But she is a good mother. She deserved a chance.”
By the time Simpson learned about EPEC, her life was spiraling downward.
“Every time things seemed to be going good, every time I wanted something, something would happen and it would all be taken away,” Simpson said. “It didn’t ever last.”
For two years Simpson had worked full-time — with benefits — for a branch of Ford Motor Co., sequencing automotive headlights. She was raising her children in a rented house in Excelsior Springs, where she had moved to get them away from an urban environment in Kansas City.
Then in 2014 her grandmother became ill — diabetes, high blood pressure and age broke her down. Simpson, with her children, went to look after her in Overland Park, but after a week, her oldest son Tyler, who was 17 at the time and played football at Excelsior Springs High School, needed to get back home for summer practices.
Eventually, Simpson gave up her Ford job to care for her grandmother full time. Daughters Aubreyona and Jordene and her youngest son Evonte were there with her.
Tyler stayed at the Excelsior Springs house for football practices. He called mom every day.
Eventually Simpson had to let her house in Excelsior Springs go and she and the kids moved from family member to family member. But Tyler moved in with the family of a childhood friend.
“I felt like a hobo jumping from train to train,” Simpson said.
Her next big trouble came one morning in June 2015. Simpson found her mother slumped in a chair in the kitchen of her Raytown home.
“We got to the hospital just in time,” before the stroke could do more damage. It took months before her mother could speak even slurred words.
For a while, Simpson was primary caregiver for her grandmother, her mother and her children. They lived with her mom and stepfather in Raytown. She did eventually move her grandmother into a nursing home.
Simpson found a fast food job making $8.25 an hour. But it was never enough. It’s why she and her mom got so excited when they found out about the Grooming Project. And why Simpson called the next day.
Calls had been coming in to EPEC “left and right,” from people who wanted in, Kirsch said.
But Kirsch wasn’t sure Simpson was the best fit. Kirsch had partnered with Operation Breakthrough and the Rose Brooks Center — a domestic violence shelter. She had good candidates.
“They wanted women from shelters, abused homes, disastrous situations,” Simpson said. “I hadn’t been through a disaster, but I had been through the storm.”
Simpson was put on a waiting list. But she couldn’t wait.
“She called every day for a month asking to get into the class,” Kirsch said. “I couldn’t say no.”
The last time Simpson called, “I told Natasha, I’m almost 40. When is it going to be my time?”
“Natasha said ‘I guess it’s going to be in January, when can you come for an interview.’ ”
Life was looking up, Simpson thought.
Then came the phone call, a week before her Oct. 22, 2015, interview. The news brought her to her knees.
Death and determination
“My son got killed,” Simpson said with tears pooled in her eyes.
By the time Simpson told this story to The Star, eight months had passed since her son’s death. It still hurt her so much she could hardly speak.
Simpson was holding her cellphone in her hand when it rang the October day. “I knew something was wrong,” she said.
She heard a friend on the other end telling her that the night before, during a botched robbery, Tyler had been shot dead in the parking lot of a Kansas City, North, fast-food restaurant. He’d been persuaded by his closest friend to use a toy gun to hold up a couple of drug dealers. When the shooting started his friend ran. Tyler had graduated from high school six months before and was set to attend Metropolitan Community College-Longview.
Simpson called Kirsch in a panic to delay the interview. But she also assured Kirsch she would be ready to start the training in January.
When training began, Simpson showed up every day, a faded red University of Oklahoma ball cap pulled over her short-cropped hair. Tyler had always begged for that cap. Wearing it reminded Simpson how much he had wanted her to go through with the course.
Talk about quitting
The EPEC board of directors had looked for women with “a great attitude,” Kirsch said. “Showing that you are finally at that stage in life where you are willing to do whatever it is going to take to get out of the situation, that is what we were looking for.”
Each woman in training got a $160-a-week stipend. Hardly enough to live on, but most also get government help. Kirsch, EPEC board members, mentors and counselors also help with extras — food, transportation, clothing, and even finding housing.
When Simpson started she was still couch surfing. A few weeks into training her tenuous living arrangement crumbled completely. Her mother lost her home. Simpson’s two oldest children went to live with different family members. Her mother moved in with a sister.
Simpson and her then 7-year-old daughter were left homeless and Simpson talked about quitting the program.
“I have to get a job now,” Simpson said. “I have to find some place to live.”
Kirsch suggested the City Union Mission. “No,” Simpson said. “I can’t take my baby into no shelter. No, no, no.”
Kirsch tried to convince her, “but I realized I was asking her to do something that I had never done and didn’t know if I could do,” Kirsch said.
Simpson’s Grooming Project classmates had done it. So they stepped in and talked her into going to the shelter for a while.
Simpson stayed for 30 days before the shelter told her she had to move on. But she still hadn’t found a home and even if she did, getting the first and last month’s rent needed to move in somewhere seemed an impossibility.
It was her mom who found the two-bedroom house in central Kansas City that Simpson could rent for $650 a month.
Barbie Daniels, a recovered addict, mother of two and Kirsch’s friend, knew about putting a life back together. “I wasn’t going to let her quit, no matter what,” Daniels said. She persuaded Simpson to use every penny of an income tax refund from her fast food job to pay several months’ rent.
“She was happy once she had the house,” Kirsch said.
Simpson began to see herself as normal, a mother earning a living, providing and caring for her children.
Simpson made it to grooming classes week days. On weekends, she worked part-time at an internship — bathing dogs at a salon in Waldo.
Putting it to work
Several weeks into training, Simpson and her classmates visited Wayside Waifs and spent the day bathing, brushing and clipping homeless dogs. The parallels to her own life — making the dogs look better so they can find a home and live better lives — were not lost on Simpson.
“This is just so neat. I’m loving it,” she said.
Simpson had a prancing pooch on the table. Six-year-old Dalton seemed a tad nervous. Simpson covered her own eyes with protective glasses and got nose to nose with the 14-pound shih tzu-terrier mix.
“It’s OK, it’s OK,” she whispered. The prancing stopped. The hairy mutt calmed. Simpson gently wrapped one hand around his snout and held his jaws shut. With a little scissors in her opposite hand, she clipped around its face, neck, ears. Brown hair flew into the air and covered the floor.
Simpson figured her skills might eventually land her a dream job grooming dogs at PetSmart, where she would earn a competitive wage, commission and full benefits.
Yet, there would soon be another emotional hurdle. A week before graduation, Simpson sat nervously in a Clay County courtroom. Her mother sat close to her, her stepfather sat behind them waiting for the judge to impose sentence on Tristian Wilton, 19, for his role in the death of Simpson’s son.
Circuit Judge Shane T. Alexander called for the victim’s family to speak. Simpson walked slowly to the front of the courtroom. Her words were nearly inaudible through her soft crying.
“Why, why, why did you have to call my son?” She said later she wasn’t happy with the 15-year sentence prosecutors had agreed to for Wilton. But she would live with it.
At the end-of-school gala for the Grooming Project, Simpson’s smile was back. She clutched a sparkling silver handbag. Her red gown brushed lightly against the floor as she joined in a line dance, giggling like a school girl.
The next afternoon Simpson and her classmates donned caps, gowns and crossed a small stage in the basement of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Brookside to receive their Grooming Project certificates.
Weeks passed before Simpson landed that interview with PetSmart. She started there shampooing pooches, and within a week store managers were scheduling her for full grooms.
But the three-hour-a-day bus ride to work and home was too much. Simpson was up by 5 a.m. to drop her sleepy daughter with family and arrive at work by 8:30 a.m. In the evenings Simpson got home after 7 p.m. to cook and put her daughter to bed.
“I never really got to see my baby,” Simpson said. “I hated it.”
Simpson stayed with PetSmart a month. Now she’s grooming for Dog Pawz in downtown Kansas City, a 30-minute bus ride each way.
Owner Dan Thompson, who’s been a supporter of the Grooming Project, said he has watched Simpson grow from the beginning, and knew her story.
Thompson has faith in Simpson. He likes that she’s outgoing, “always smiling,” he said. Thompson says he’s going to help her build her clientele, and teach her what it takes to manage a pet grooming business.
“Danielle has always said she wants to start her own grooming business some day,” Kirsch said. “I believe that she will.”