Project Self-Sufficency helps support single parents on their educational journey

Allison Cuff with her kids Lexy and Nathan, from left, in their apartment in Huntington Beach.
Allison Cuff with her kids, Lexy and Nathan, from left, in their apartment in Huntington Beach. Cuff is a single mom who is part of the Project Self-Sufficiency program and works in the affordable housing industry.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)
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Allison Cuff was 25 when she came home from jail time, which she said was caused by her addiction to opiates.

Originally from Santa Ana, she moved to Huntington Beach in about 2006 to live with her aunt. Being on parole provided some harsh realities, especially when her then-infant daughter, Lacy, accompanied her on check-ins with her parole officer.

“I would have to go down to the Huntington Beach Police Department to provide a urine test for my parole officer, and my parole officer would have to hold my baby while she watched me pee in a cup,” Cuff recalled. “Fun times. That was a huge wake-up call for me.”


With a GED and little else, she needed a spark. One day, while taking her daughter to preschool, another parent mentioned going back to school.

Cuff liked the idea. She enrolled at Orange Coast College, and an online search helped her find Project Self-Sufficiency, a nonprofit that helps low-income single parents in Orange County and Long Beach graduate from college or vocational training.

Cuff joined, then left the program, marrying a man who ended up incarcerated, she said. Two more kids later, she got divorced and reenrolled in Project Self-Sufficiency.

Still a Surf City resident, her journey has been long, but there are sign markers to show her progress.

She’s been working full time as a program manager for Jamboree Housing Corp. for three years. And in December, she expects to earn a bachelor’s degree in human development from Cal State East Bay.

“I think I’m the longest-standing participant of Project Self-Sufficiency ever,” said Cuff, now 43, with a laugh. “They can’t wait to get rid of me.”

Project Self-Sufficiency started in 1985 in Huntington Beach, when the city participated in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s national program. In 2018, it expanded services countywide. The nonprofit is headquartered on the second floor of the Melinda Hoag Smith Center for Healthy Living in Newport Beach.

Allison Cuff with Lexy and Nathan, from left, at their apartment park in Huntington Beach.
Allison Cuff with Lexy and Nathan, from left, at their apartment park in Huntington Beach.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Participants in the program are predominantly single moms, though single dads are also welcome, Project Self-Sufficiency executive director Beth Jackson-Pardo said.

They’re given a set budget per year and can decide how to spend it, whether the money goes toward rental assistance and childcare, or maybe textbooks and a new laptop for school.

“Education is still a path out of poverty for low-income families,” said Jackson-Pardo, whose background is in social work. “Everyone’s debating the merits of a college degree, but for low-income families, it’s still a game changer. But single parents and low-income students in general, they start college but they don’t finish. They don’t graduate, and now they have debt, and they’re kind of worse off than they were before.”

Money obviously helps. Project Self-Sufficiency awarded 50 scholarships totaling more than $63,000 at an event earlier this month.

The total includes $40,500 given out in 10 scholarships from longtime PSS supporter Assistance League of Huntington Beach, plus a $1,200 scholarship from Soroptimist International of Huntington Beach. The program also celebrated 18 graduates, including seven who earned bachelor’s degrees and 11 with associate’s degrees.

Other than the financial aspect, PSS provides wraparound services to help the single parents on their road, plus a community of support.

Cuff has been living in low-income housing for nearly a decade, the same three-bedroom apartment on Beach Boulevard. Her daughter Lacy is now 17 and an incoming senior at Coast High School, while twins Lexy and Nathan are 9.

For a time, Waukecha Wilkerson lived directly below Cuff in the same complex. Wilkerson is also a single mom of three, and said she also found PSS through online searches.

Since then, she’s earned three associate’s degrees from Coastline Community College and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Cal State Sacramento.

Wilkerson bought a house in Riverside County and just received an acceptance for graduate school this fall at San Diego State. She also recently started a new position as chief development officer for Project Self-Sufficiency.

She said the program helped her build a huge amount of social capital.

“I was able to balance a budget, put away a savings, do all of the things that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do if I was just trying to survive,” Wilkerson said. “I probably would have dropped out before I graduated, honestly, if I didn’t have that support ... Student parents, as a whole, have higher GPAs nationally than students that don’t have children. But even with that, it still doesn’t feel like it’s something that is achievable sometimes.”

She said PSS introduced her to Soroptimist ladies who would take her son to preschool, while she traveled to work an hour away. She was also connected with First Christian Church of Huntington Beach, which offered a study hour complete with child care.

A photo collage on the refrigerator reflecting Allison Cuff and her family at their apartment in Huntington Beach.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“That’s something that’s a real luxury for a single mom,” Wilkerson said.

Now Wilkerson has started her own business doing coaching for student parents and she’s able to contribute scholarships herself, which she said is very surreal.

Jackson-Pardo said the program, which involves an application process, is typically is able to serve 50 to 60 families at a time.

There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer or even become a business partner. Later this summer, PSS plans to hold a networking event, where clients can do things like get head shots for LinkedIn and business cards.

“We’re investing in individuals, and their success is not just an individual success,” Jackson-Pardo said. “We really believe that when you empower families, you strengthen the whole community.”

Project Self-Sufficiency is a long-term program, though usually not as long-term as Cuff has made it. She said she’s still friends with women from her original cohort and has become known as a sort of resource guru.

Far from that 20-something who was on parole, the program has helped her find her passion — gerontology, the study of aging.

“A lot of seniors don’t speak up for themselves, but I’m there, and I know what they need,” Cuff said. “I’m their voice, and I love it.”