Community action agency teaches skills, provides services and support
PRINCETON — Despite America’s economic recovery, 43 million people are still living in poverty, and even more are just one missed paycheck away from hardship.
Vanessa Hoffeditz, who is a community services coordinator with Tri-County Opportunities Council, said those in poverty are the most vulnerable, because many are living in unsuitable conditions or in a crisis.
“When you think about poverty, poverty affects communities at large. The health of our communities is affected, and the community as a whole struggles,” she said.
Fortunately, through the work of community action agencies all over the U.S., those in need have an opportunity to grasp “a hand up” to help move beyond a difficult situation.
According to the most recent statistics, more than 1 million low-income individuals in the state were serviced by community action agencies.
Bureau County is covered under the community action agency known as Tri-County Opportunities Council. Since its inception in 1965, it has helped thousands of individuals move out of instability and crisis and into self-sufficiency.
“The role of a community action agency is to move individuals out of poverty to a place where they are making a living wage, are able to afford a stable home, and be a part of the community in a sense where they are able to work part-time or full-time and pay taxes,” Hoffeditz said.
While community action agencies have gotten criticism over the years as being a “waste of money” and a “giveaway program,” Hoffeditz noted that it only takes one significant medical illness for people who were working full-time to suddenly find themselves in a situation where they’re unable to pay the bills.
“Maybe it’s cancer, and suddenly that person is not able to work, and what happens now? Oftentimes, people are moving into poverty that never thought they’d be in that experience before,” she said.
“In your situation, we’re here to take a look at it and offer you services and support that can move you beyond where you’re at right now.”
Tri-County Opportunities Council operates under a board structure made up of individuals served through the programs it offers, as well as representatives of community organizations and local government officials.
Board members use community assessments that look at things such as transportation, issues of hunger, food insecurity, education and employment opportunities. Hoffeditz said the assessments help pinpoint the underlying causes of hunger and needs.
“They’re all engaged in looking into the issues on why people are living in poverty,” she said.
Based on the results, the agency develops programming and strategies that work to meet the needs within the communities.
Currently, Tri-County Opportunities provides seven programs through a Community Services Block Grant. Those programs provide emergency assistance, help those who are homeless, give out scholarships to students pursuing higher education, and assist individuals with needed financial assistance before beginning a new job, whether that’s supplying needed clothing or transportation.
Aside from those programs, Tri-County Opportunities Council also provides a foster grandparent program, a Head Start program for young children, a Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and a home weatherization program.
Tri-County Opportunities Council is always looking to implement new programming based on assessments. In fact, it recently implemented a program that would assist people in obtaining their GED.
“This is after looking at graduation rates from high schools in nine counties. We knew there were individuals not finishing high school who needed to have the opportunity in working with us to obtain a GED,” Hoffeditz said.
Another new program helps individuals obtain their driver’s license or birth certificate, which can be a costly endeavor for some.
In 2016, Tri-County Opportunities Council received more than $14 million in funding for its programming. More than $11 million of that was federal dollars, more than $2 million was state dollars, more than $600,000 came from other sources of funding, and more than $100,000 was provided from in-kind and professional services.
Hoffeditz said all programs offered through Tri-County Opportunities Council help strengthen a community as a whole.
“So many non-profits in our community work together. We’re here to teach skills, provide services and support. The clients just have to be willing to work with us,” she said.
Hoffeditz said she looks at it as playing the role of a life coach to those in need.
“We point them in the direction to help get them back on their feet, and help them come up with options. It’s a hand up with a goal of moving people out of poverty,” she said.
Tri-County Opportunities Council covers a nine-county region encompassing Bureau, Carroll, LaSalle, Lee, Marshall, Ogle, Putnam, Stark and Whiteside counties, which amounts to 5,454 square miles.