It’s called an asset-based approach, and the philosophy seeks to build up the community based on members’ strengths. Other agencies and programs too often focus on what people don't have, she says, “Usually it’s, 'Tell me how screwed up you are, and then maybe you’ll qualify and we’ll give you this.' "
Neighborhood Centers take a novel approach of placing residents in classes that build on their skills — whether it's baking cupcakes or cosmetology.
Neighborhood Centers' three goals are: getting people engaged in the community — through volunteering or taking classes at Neighborhood Center — getting them educated, and getting them financially stable. “But you can’t take a stay-at-home mom from Honduras and force her into a community college right away,” says Vasquez. “If she has three kids, her husband has two jobs, and she needs to make money, she might say she likes crafting — so she enters a crafting class.”
Crafting might not sound like a solution to poverty, but Neighborhood Centers has had nine new businesses come from just one of their locations. “People smirk and say, ‘You’re teaching kite making?’ We have someone making $90,000 with a kite-making business now,” she says. A recent survey of 12,000 members showed that 87 percent wanted to own a business.
Getting the basics
Like many Midwestern communities, like Lakewood, Ohio, used to have a strong manufacturing economy. Globalization and the technology have dried up most of those jobs, and unemployment is exacerbated by the recession.
Four local churches started North Coast Health Ministry in 1986 when community members found themselves without health benefits, and the community “saw people falling through the cracks,” says Assistant Executive Director Jeanine Gergel. It began as a volunteer service where local health care providers would offer free-of-cost appointments in their offices, but has since grown into its own clinic that offers free visits seven days a week to 2,500 patients.
Christine Shearheart was laid off in June 2010 and now relies on North Coast for health care. “I couldn’t afford it on unemployment,” she says. “There are many in my position who are without any health care whatsoever, but aren’t old enough to be on Medicare.”
Another concern for suburban families is preschool, but those areas are short on public transportation and many low-income families share cars. Small Steps Nurturing Center in Houston, a Christian organization providing free early childhood education to low-income families, got around this problem by providing bus service to its far-flung clients.
“We couldn’t get to them, and they couldn’t get to us,” says Ana Schick. Their answer to gentrification pushing their population away was to provide transportation themselves, and they now bus almost half of their kids to their First Ward campus. “We have had people tell us they would not be able to get here if we didn’t,” says Schick.
Ultimately, there are going to be struggling members of society, says Vasquez, whether they shift to the suburbs or elsewhere. “This idea of the ‘War on Poverty’; poverty is not something that’s going to disappear, and the thought that we won’t have folks in need is irresponsible. What is responsible is to have systems, to be ready to help each other,” she says.
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