Wednesday, December 22, 2010

AmeriCorps VISTA Presence with the IDA and Asset Building Collaborative of N.C.: Marley's service with Community Link in Charlotte

Marley serves as a VISTA at Community Link in Charlotte.  She is incredibly energetic and outgoing, and holds a lust for service; she actively pursues every avenue for growth.  We were in the same training group during our VISTA orientation in Atlanta, and although our service sites are far apart, I was so happy to learn that we would serve on the same team.  –Andriana Bicanin.

Marley comes into the program with experience as an AmeriCorps State/National member.  With that she worked in the family services department with home buyers.  The biggest differentiating factor with her State/National position and her VISTA position is that the director of the State/National program chose who was in line for their house to be built, down payments, everything.  They didn’t have to wait on word from other organizations.  With her past service term the direction of the project came from the inside, and management decided the direction of projects and initiatives.

She chose to join AmeriCorps because of the mission of AmeriCorps- that of ending the vicious cycle of poverty.  While volunteering with Habitat for Humanity her eyes were opened to the value of educating people on the lower economic scale.  She discovered the importance of educating those with lower income on credit and housing, and then giving them something tangible that they can build off of.  As with everyone in IDA and asset building programs, she saw that education and tangible results are the sustainable long term solution to eliminating poverty.  She said that even if they don’t stay in their house for five years, they know the process, the details, the true cost of things, and are more equipped to go on to bigger and better things, and actually climb the economic ladder. They now have the ability to pass their new found knowledge to the next generation. This is the path for long term solutions.  As she so accurately states, life happens- homelessness and/or joblessness happens, but as long as you know the process to climb out of that it is possible to surpass the obstacles.

Community Link:

Community Link has several different programs that serve on a continuum for members of the community.  They include:

1) Family Jumpstart:  This program targets homeless people and pulls together casework, job assistance, and housing.

2) Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing:  Casework services and intervention for people who are on the verge of homelessness.

3) Supportive Housing: Community link has partnership agreements with housing complexes throughout Charlotte.  With this program, Community Link vouches for a person to live in an apartment complex, and assures that the complex will get rent in time, and the house will be left in good condition. 

These clients have past rental issues but are reformed and looking to improve their housing history.

4) Home Ownership Education and Counseling:  This program can last up to 18 months.  Some people come in because they want to take part in the House Charlotte program. 

In the House Charlotte program up to $10,000, for homes $140,000 and less, in closing costs and down payments are given depending on the neighborhood.  This program entails one-on-one going guidance through the entire home buying process.  In order to get into the program a client must me referred by the House Charlotte Line, a bank or a realtor.

5) Family Financial Literacy Coalition:  This is the program that Marley works on, and it is made up of three active committees.  It consists of partnerships with financial institutions and non profits in the city of Charlotte.  The main focus is on the VITA site.  There are financial education workshops by way of EITC. 

The VISTA position within this program:

Marley chairs the asset building committee.  Their main focus is asset building coaches who will be at the VITA site.  Exposure with the coaches is 15 minutes per client.  They try to load clients up with as much financial education as possible.  Clients have an opportunity to enroll in a prepaid debit card if they are under-banked or unbanked, and financial institution referrals are taken out of the resource guide. There are also referrals for foreclosure prevention, debt counseling, and employment assistance. 

They are currently in the pilot phase of a Financial Fitness Coach Program. This program is teamed up with their home ownership department.  If they have customers who will take longer than 18 months to complete the program, they are referred to the program and paired up with a financial fitness coach for a whole year.  The coach/customer team meets two hours a month so that the customer not only sets goals, but also meets with someone that guides them. The program focuses on paying off debt, staying on budget, improving credit, saving towards their kid’s college, or a down payment on something- car or house- whatever their goal might be. It’s a 12 month intensive program in the very beginning stages. This is the first program not centered on VITA sites that the coalition is doing.

There are great things going on in Charlotte, and Marley finds herself pushing her limits and facing challenges that arise.  She is unaccustomed to working as a collaborative, and is learning the ins and outs of collaborative interaction in the quest to move forward with a project.  This project is expansive, helps the many, and is far more than just a Charlotte wide initiative; it reaches beyond that area. When working they consider that everything they put together has to work in other counties and communities, and are broad in their approach.  She is still learning the mechanics of how it works.

Through these challenges she is learning and growing, and has set short term goals of improving the asset building coaches, and creating resources to pass onto customers.  Marley thinks for what is sustainable.  Handouts are temporary, but if they can give the person the tools they need in the long run they will be much better off. The major thing Marley is learning is that sometimes you will get that idea you want to take off with and are enthusiastic about, and some people will run with you, but especially in a collaborative, there is a lot of patience with processes because there are so many people that need to get on board; there is a much larger scope.  She is learning to walk that balance between patience and immediate action.

Friday, December 10, 2010

AmeriCorps presence in the Asset Building & IDA Collaborative of N.C.: Trevor, with Durham Regional Financial Center

This next installment in the series of AmeriCorps interviews is with Trevor, who is an AmeriCorps VISTA placed in Durham.  Trevors interview is fast paced, energetic, and filled with ideas, information, and projects underway.  It left me excited, impressed, and  feeling even luckier to be a part of such a strong group of VISTAs.  Trevor is a "take the bull by the horns" kind of guy (good thing he is in Bull City!), which is very obvious in the way he works, and the great things he has already accomplished.  I feel honored to present you with this interview  -Andriana Bicanin


Trevor is placed at Durham Regional Financial Center.  He applied for AmeriCorps VISTA after finding the job listing online, and thought the work looked interesting.  His thought process went, “Man, this looks worthwhile.”  Part of the appeal of the work was that it was a new venture and something he had not done before.  At the time of application he had two part time jobs, but when he saw this it was something he just couldn’t pass up.  He compared this position to the “shiny thing in the store.”  He doesn’t make impulse purchases, but instead life decisions.  With this spontaneity comes a strong work ethic and constant movement within his position.  He puts in 110% at Durham Regional Financial Center, and really throws himself into his work.  Trevor doesn’t want to show up at work one day and find himself with nothing to do, so he is constantly researching programs and best practices, finding people to meet, connections to make, and forging ahead with great new plans for the program and community.  He readily admits that what allows him to continue doing this much-needed work is strong leadership from his supervisor and the director of the agency, Glyndola Beasley.  Even while conducting this very interview he had just left a lunch meeting that he only found out about hours before.  While talking his tone is very descriptive of what is going on with this great organization; fast paced, and always moving, he keeps remembering nonprofits they are working with and programs that benefit the community.  After the interview was over it took me a few minutes to catch my own breath after hearing all the great things going on in Durham.

Durham Regional Financial Center, a HUD Approved and COA Accredited 501(c)3 non-profit formed in 1998, focuses on a variety of things such as: housing counseling, pre- and post-purchase counseling, loss mitigation and foreclosure prevention, credit and budget counseling, debt management plans, and reverse mortgage.

What do you do with the program; what are some projects?

Overall, Trevor administers the IDA program, does outreach, recruits new clients, works on retention, and works to determine what the clients need and how the organization can address those needs.  Lately, he has been trying to streamline the administration of the program, and since he’s only there for a year he’s focusing on standardizing a lot of the procedures and processes so the organization can look at one manual to see what to do. 

Also on his plate:

-Will be working on EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit) pretty soon, and will be promoting VITA sites.

-Standardizing and creation of guidelines will help with his current focus, which is that of retention.  For this he is constantly contacting all of their clients and making a timeline for the program from beginning to end.  This will hopefully keep them on a schedule for outreach and retention- it states how often they will call their clients in order for project success.

Trevor would like to increase the incentives for people in the community to attend classes his organization hosts.  Durham Regional Financial Center’s Individual Development Account is for first time homeowners.  These clients are required to take classes in their journey to homeownership, but the goal is to create a program that is as inclusive as possible in order to better reach out to the Durham community.

Credit unions are a really great resource to go to in any community, and he is looking to partner with those in Durham.  He is currently working on ways to get people into affordable savings and checking accounts, even if they have been banned from checking because of past mistakes.  Several participants never had savings before entering the program.  Clients are now able to begin the account creation process at the end of their first IDA counseling session.  Access to low- and no-cost banking, credit building and financial knowledge is a great incentive for those in the community.  Promoting an environment that allows people to share their goals and learn from one another is paramount in creating a sense of community and keeping people in the program; the food that they provide during classes does not hurt, either.

With these incentives in place he would like to make the classes a little more intense to drive home the gravity of a purchase commitment.  The increased intensity will weed out those who are not serious about the program, and keep the people who are serious about buying a home.  It also helps set them up for higher success.  The IDA classes are the easiest part of the home process.  You come to the classes and learn.  When you are done with the classes you are out there, own your home, have a mortgage, and need to know, remember, and act on all of the information you were taught.  He wants to drive home that this is going to affect the next 30+ years of their lives!  This isn’t something that ends when you graduate from the course, receive a loan, and get that house- this is something that you *need* to be prepared for, and information that will make it harder to default, and cause less stress.  Thirty years is a pretty large chunk of time! 

They recently graduated seven active account-holding participants through their financial education course.  They have also expanded their financial education and homebuyer education schedule for 2011, giving clients more opportunities to participate and learn.  Additionally, Durham County’s residents can now look forward to increased opportunities to participate in the Individual Development Account program’s classes at times that fit their schedule.

Although he was unfamiliar with the territory, Trevor approached this work by jumping straight into it, and hitting the ground running.  What finds the most productive is “pounding the pavement.”  He feels that in order to create the most capacity, and make the most impact you “Gotta get out in the community and hit the ground running.  Get out there and meet people as soon as you can, and as often as you can.”

Partnerships and Ideas:

Trevor devotes a lot of time calling people and pitching the idea of their IDA program.  The people he has spoken to love the idea, as he says, “What’s not to love about it.”  As they approach tax season he is going to expand into EITC.  With that venture he will approach it slightly different, but is still going to approach potential clients and partners and tell them, “This is good for your employees.”  A lot of people qualify for VITA and EITC, it’s just a matter of getting the word out there.

How Their Program Works:

Clients need to save a total of $1500

Program Length:

6 months, 12 months, 24 months

Money saved each month:

6 month: $250

12 month: $125

24 month: $62.50

Matching Funds:

6 month: 3:1
12 month: 4:1
24 month: 5:1

Durham Regional Finance Center stays in close contact with clients during and after their savings plan, and has plans to expand their capabilities for long-term tracking.  By the end of the plan they are mentally prepared for this endeavor.  Another reason he wants to expand the IDA program is so participants who do not qualify for matching grants can participate, learn about money and open accounts.  Although they do not receive the matched money, the program can help them build credit and develop sound financial habits.  This makes it so they don’t just blow it or “keep it under the mattress.”  If at some point during the savings plan they are confident enough in their financial abilities to purchase a home (and they qualify), they can begin saving for the matching grant since they already fulfilled the educational portion.


He has been talking to creditors, realtors and city agents, and has had success with a variety of organizations.  Trevor has presented on asset building at a variety of organizations in Durham County. He goes to these organizations and says, “Hey, this is who we are.”  He is basically trying to get face time with different agencies to get them in the push for asset building.

Any Challenges?

He finds it challenging to take his time, and take things one step at a time.  He realizes that everything is a process and you have to go through it one step at a time, or else you will lose your way.  It was especially troublesome that he had to learn the basics as he administered and built the program; it was a juggling act.  Fortunately, he has had some fantastic guidance and help from volunteers.  Programs like this thrive on volunteers and people who are willing to put forth time to make this work.  One of the goals is to make this program a priority for where they are, and to do that they have to prove they are making headway.  Although it has been difficult at times, the program would not have been able to move forward without its volunteers and close relationship with Durham.

Parting Words:

Bull City.”

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

AmeriCorps*VISTA Presence in Fayetteville, at Kingdom CDC

The first interview with a VISTA member in the "AmeriCorps*VISTA Presence in North Carolina" article series is with Blake, who is over at Kingdom CDC in Fayetteville.  This interview really excited me because of all of his experience in nonprofit organization, and how willing he is to share his knowledge.  I've been lucky enough to talk to him during our VISTA training in Atlanta, as well as trainings the collaborative has held for the VISTAs in Durham, and am so happy to be able to share this with ya'll!  Enjoy!  -Andriana Bicanin

Blake is an AmeriCorps VISTA with an abundance of knowledge and experience in nonprofit and community organization.  He has spent the majority of his adult life working at nonprofits throughout the country, and now brings his wealth of knowledge to Kingdom CDC. 

When I asked him what his non profit experience is, he gave me the “readers digest” version, which is still vast and impressive:

Founding member of the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston.  It is the only Fair Housing nonprofit in Eastern Massachusetts.

Program Assistant/ job readiness trainer/ job developer: welfare to work program. MassJob Training Inc.

Program Assistant- Moving to Opportunity Fair Housing Demonstration Program of Boston.  This was the precursor to the mobile section 8 and housing choice voucher program.  This program allowed the government to move to section 8 and housing vouchers holders throughout the country, instead of only in state.

Department of Health and Human Services, Social Security Administration.

Blake’s first experience with nonprofit organization was when he received a certificate from Literacy Volunteers of America and started teaching GED classes at City Colleges of Chicago. 

At one time, the south side of Chicago housed a thriving steel mill industry, but this industry found itself closing its doors and large amounts of people were left jobless.  He met the people who were directly affected, a majority of which had little or no education. and decided that his path was in the nonprofit sector, giving back.  He did not know what he wanted to do, he just knew he wanted to do something.

Why did you choose this program in AmeriCorps VISTA:

Community asset building is what he does, it allows him to continue linking people together with the resources in the community, while he gets the platform for when he talks to other nonprofits in the area on how they can partner with each other; these organizations need to partner together.  He then explained how there are two sides to nonprofit work that cannot be ignored.  There is a business side and then the nonprofit side.  With the business side you need numbers so you can keep getting grants and other donations  and the nonprofit or visionary side breaks down barriers for knowing what community assets are and communicating this to community.  It is also important for nonprofits to share clients with other non profits to get more done. 

With this he shares an experience he had with Habitat for Humanity.  When it comes to nonprofit work he strongly believes it’s about the family.  No matter the age it is possible to involve everyone in the family in what is being done and everyone benefits.  Habitat for Humanity requires that the receiving family put in a certain amount of “sweat equity” into the building of their house, but small children are not allowed to help build.  The Habitat group he worked with allowed children to support their family by getting good grades, which then translated as sweat equity hours- if the children in the household received A’s and B’s it was counted towards the building of their home.  This holistic approach brought each member of the family into the process, and the children involved usually received better grades!  As Blake said, the “Holistic approach is a beautiful thing.”

What does the organization you support do:

Due to the lack of decent, affordable housing for low income individuals in Fayetteville, a group of five or six Church folks came together and brainstormed ideas for such homes.  Through this effort, came the formation of the Kingdom CDC; 15 years later, decent, affordable housing is still its core mission.

The IDA program was brought into the program in 2003.  A big piece of what they deal with is foreclosure prevention and mortgage mitigation, with financial literacy built in.  Clients are required to take classes, and they also offer financial literacy classes free to the community.  Very recently, they conducted a class on budget and credit counseling, at Fayetteville State University.

An overview of Kingdom Community Development:

Foreclosure Prevention
Pre purchase Counseling
Financial Literacy
Building Homes

The greatest challenge to capacity is staff.  Not including the director and receptionist, there is a staff of 3 counseling clients, and doing everything for the organization.

What is it that you do with the organization:

Blake’s assignment at Kingdom Community is to lay the groundwork for making a stronger program, and talking to different nonprofits in the area with whom they can partner.  He also conducts volunteer recruitment.  He has identified three prime locations for recruitment, of those are:

-Fayetteville Technical Community College

-Minority Leadership Development Program- Sponsored by
United Way
of Cumberland County  They train individuals on how to work on nonprofit boards and committees. 

-ICL: Institute for Community Leadership- Sponsored by Cumberland County Chamber of Commerce, Fayetteville Technical Community College, The Arts Council and Cumberland County Schools. 

What do you find most challenging:

Pace.  “As an ISTJ,” he tends to stick to what is outlined in the goals and timelines of a project, and there are some things he would like to switch around, but does not because of adherence to the action plan as set in the VISTA Assignment Description. 

He would like to start working on making things more time efficient, and would like to create a central database.  There is currently no central database- everyone has information on their own computers.  They rely on the directors memory when they need to find the information for an IDA participants.  He feels that it would be more time efficient if this information was readily available, as they now have to manually get information.

As Blake said earlier in our conversation, the biggest challenge is staff. There are four people doing all the programs which keeps things busy, and their internal resources are spread thin. Space is also an issue.  They are located in downtown Fayetteville and share a very small space between the all of them.

Nonprofit workers suffer from a high burnout rate.  This is common because workers don’t always see action right away, or even over a longer period of time.  The people who choose to work in nonprofit organizations have all these great visions and missions, and tend to get overwhelmed by everything that comes with working in a nonprofit.  They come into this line of work idealistic as to what they can help to accomplish and the people they can help, but run into many of the same problems, such as: hindrances in community acceptance; an overall feeling that they cannot help enough and serve all the needs of the community; there is also the fact that nonprofits are businesses as well, and not just a mission- individuals come into the program with a great mission in mind, and then find out that there are numbers to crunch, meetings to go to, and people to report to. 

The people in this line of work need to realize is that they can’t help everyone.  Not only is this a highly emotion driven field, but as he noted, the “Pay is lousy.”

How can people get involved with this effort, who do they contact?

Contact Blake Lucas or Elsie Gilmore at: 910 484 2722

What suggestions do you have for someone who wants to get into nonprofit organization.  What steps should they take:

Volunteer at different nonprofits and find something that you truly like to do.  Think of the things that make you happy.  Do you like to build?  Then volunteer with an organization that needs handy people.  Do you like recycling?  Volunteer at a Restore Warehouse such as Habitat of Humanity has.  If you love reading then read to the blind.  Try to find something that you can learn from, but you also like so that you don’t get in there and lose interest.  Match it up.  If you are a student and it is possible, volunteer with an organization where you can get credit or gain skill to further your career.  There are VITA sites around the country where you can become a trained tax preparer. 

Look inside yourself and do what you like and what your passion is, and find an organization to do that with.  Don’t get scared to get dirty.

Networking is also important.  Go to community events and seek out what is going on in the area, and apply.  Clients can also be the best leads.  They share what’s going on with them, what they have heard, then that spark flickers and you go “Oh I can do that, I can look into that.” 

Political views aside, nonprofits do the dirty work.

Nonprofits also incorporates cross training of what you need in the business world. Regardless of public or private. Networking, communication, budgeting, grants, proposals, dealing with people- <= you do all of this in the nonprofit world, and it makes you valuable in the private sector as a manager.

What is your favorite part of this line of work; what is the best part?

With each question I ask, he takes a moment to reflect on his experiences and gather memories from a life of public sector work.  With this question he paused for a second and responded with, “Would have to be the look on the families face when they have achieved something,” and knowing he played a “small part.”

Here is a beautiful story from when he worked and lived in Boston:

When working on the Boston welfare to work program he worked with a single mother of a 3-4 year old.  Together they “Knocked on doors and finally got her a job.”  He left this program and went on to work at MTO.  One day, serendipity walked into his office in the form of the same woman he helped find a job years earlier.  Because he knew her history, they worked together towards her entry into a family self sufficiency program.  Eventually, they were able to get her a Section 8 voucher, and she moved into a Canton condominium. Canton, MA is an extremely wealthy, upper middle and upper class area just south of Boston MA, and she remains the only person to have lived in a condo there under Section 8.
Three years later he was walking out of a store and heard and saw someone waving and calling out, “Mr. Blake!”  At first he did not recognize the excited woman coming at him.  After a moment he realized it was the same woman he had helped all those years ago.  She had lost weight, looked great, and right in the middle of the street she gave him a bog ol’ hug.  They chatted for a while as she regaled him with stories of her accomplishments and achievements since their last encounter.  This single mother of a small child was promoted at work, went back to school, her kids were doing great, and with all of that she thanked him.  She thanked him for listening and not telling her what to do, equipping her for success, and advising her.

After telling me this story, he doesn’t miss a beat and reflectively says, “That is what nonprofit work is all about,” that is what he likes to achieve.  And even with the clients he is not able to help, he still wants to have given them something- he hopes they learned something from their interaction.  The people are what keep him going, and he reiterates, “That’s ‘the best part.’”