Founded in 1894, the Martha O’Bryan Center is a 125-year-old anti-poverty agency planted in the heart of Cayce Homes—Nashville’s oldest and largest public housing community.
“Everything we do is to help elevate families and individuals out of poverty,” says Kent Miller, chief program officer at Martha O’Bryan. “We really believe there is no wrong entry into the Martha O’Bryan Center but once you’re here, we want to treat you with respect and help you work toward your individual goals. We really believe that the client is the expert in their individual life and that we are here to help coach them in where they would like to go in the future.”
While Martha O’Bryan’s reach isn’t limited to Cayce Homes residents, due to proximity, many of their clients live in public housing.
“Our families are rich in relationships but they often struggle financially,” Kent says. “The average family lives off less than $10,000 per year here. That’s not enough. I think we can all agree on that.”
About 70 percent of the neighborhood is on SNAP benefits, and 22 percent are unemployed, which is 10 times the Davidson County average.
One client Keyaundra was living in Cayce Homes when she heard about Martha O’Bryan several years ago.
“I used to always hear about how Martha O’Bryan had great opportunities. And that’s where it all began,” she says.
Keyaundra enrolled in the Adult Education program at Martha O’Bryan nearly 12 years ago when Tennessee offered the GED. When the test changed from the GED to the HiSET (High School Equivalency Test), she lost all of her progress and became discouraged. She would start and stop various programs over the years, struggling to balance school with being a single parent. Not to mention worsening issues with her vision, which would sometimes cause her to blackout.
She felt defeated.
“At first it was my own mind. I would say, ‘I can’t do it. It’s too hard,’ ” she says. “And also the lifestyle that I was living. Once upon a time, I was doing drugs. So once I came to the conclusion that I no longer wanted that in my life—I wanted more; I wanted better—that’s what gave me the strength to continue on with focusing on my GED.”
In March 2018, she came back with resolve.
With hard work, she passed all the tests except math by June. She took the math HiSET in December 2018, but only scored a 3 out of the minimum 8. Keyaundra didn’t let that stop her. She would come to class early to study and finally passed her math test with a 9 in April, earning her well-deserved High School Equivalency degree.
“Over this past year, we have watched her transform as she has gained both skills and confidence,” says Emrie Smith, high school equivalency specialist at Martha O’Bryan. “Her joy can be found in her steadfast resilience.”
Days after receiving her passing results, she was back at Martha O’Bryan applying for colleges. Her next goal is to become a mortician.
“I’m optimistic about my future. I’m really excited. I’ve come so far from being homeless to doing drugs, getting my GED, working to become a mortician, hopefully next: a home. I’m in an apartment now but I want a home. That’s my goal. That’s my dream. I’m not stopping now. Nothing can stop me now.”
But Keyaundra is just one of the 12,000 clients that Martha O’Bryan serves each year. The organization provides a continuum of services from cradle to career focused on education, employment, family and community support, including prenatal parenting classes, early literacy programming, adult education, K-8 curriculum, high school and college support, youth employment opportunities, along with their emergency food bank and Family Resource Center.
“The majority of our residents don’t have a post-secondary education or any form of post-secondary credentials so that’s something that is extremely important to us to continue to build that pathway and that culture that allows all of our caregivers to continue to pursue education throughout their life because we know that leads to future opportunities.”
To learn more about the Martha O’Bryan Center, visit www.marthaobryan.org.