Thursday, October 31, 2013

Pathfinder Services evolves in surprising directions to meet Indiana’s changing needs

Of all of the organizations we have researched for this anniversary series, Pathfinder Services of Huntington, IN, has evolved the most dramatically over its 47-year history (the last five as a charter member of NeighborWorks America). And it is among the most diverse as it reaches across sectors – housing, education and job creation to name just a few – to serve its community and fund its programs. Its story is a tale of flexibility, nimbleness and a willingness to take calculated risks.

The roots of the organizations extend back to 1966, when it began as a local affiliate of the Indiana Association for Retarded Children. At the time, a movement was sweeping the country to de-institutionalize people with developmental disabilities – allowing them to live at home, instead of being warehoused in “asylums.” A group of parents in Huntington recruited supporters and funding, then opened a school (“mainstreaming” had not yet arrived to public education) and a sheltered workshop that offered training and employment.

The organization grew rapidly in the following years, including its first foray into housing, when it opened a halfway house for individuals transitioning to independence. But it wasn’t until the early ‘80s that the organization began to widen its focus to serve the community at large – first, persons with all types of disabilities, and then the broader “collective.”

Transitioning from a focus on disability to broader community development 

John Niederman (light green jacket) mixes with local residents.
“The change in orientation began when the ‘movement’ (for disability rights) began focusing more on integration,” explains John Niederman, who has served as president of the organization since 1985. “Inclusion became a core value, and research showed that too often, people in the community thought of us as ‘that place down the street.’ One of the best ways to integrate is to develop assets – to plug ‘service gaps,’ if you will – that benefit the community as a whole.”

Just before Niederman’s arrival, the organization changed its name to Pathfinder Services, reflecting that broader mission. “We see ourselves as providing the pathways to improve residents’ lives,” he explains. Today, its services include:

Affordable child care.

Employment generation, including interview coaching, job training and placement assistance.  In fact, through its “outsource manufacturing” division, individuals with disabilities and others in need of a stable working environment provide businesses with services ranging from assembly to packaging. It’s a win-win-win for all involved: Businesses receive quality work at reasonable cost, Pathfinder earns revenue that funds its programs and employees are able to support themselves while gaining valuable skills. (Pathfinder is a bit of a trailblazer when it comes to creatively leveraging its core competencies to generate income – including product sales and consulting. A future blog post will focus on this topic; sign up in the field to the right of this feature to receive articles in your inbox!)

Training in personal financial management, including educational courses and assistance in setting up individual development accounts (IDAs) to encourage savings. Reflecting its highly responsive organizational culture, it offers a tailored version of its IDA program customized for newly re-settled refugees, to help them buy a home, start a business or go to school. (Surprisingly, nearby Fort Wayne is thought to have the largest number of Burmese refugees in the United States!)

Housing-related services ranging from development of low-income housing, homebuyer training (including a recent session offered in Burmese) and assistance with home rehab.

Niederman is proud of the fact that in 1996, Pathfinder became the first and only organization in Indiana to receive funding for its housing initiatives from the newly established rural component of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), and is one of the USDA’s highest-volume partners when it comes to assisting low- to moderate-income individuals apply for rural-oriented "502 direct mortgage loans."

Building social connectedness

A sign promotes one of the
block parties organized by
Pathfinder staff
One of Pathfinder’s more recent community-development initiatives is an outreach program to foster “social connectedness” in targeted neighborhoods. The organization started in an urban neighborhood of Fort Wayne, with the help of a grant from the Indiana Association for Community Economic Development, funded by JP Morgan Chase Bank.

Pathfinder focused on one particular zip code with a population of 17,000, where residents broke into small groups to identify quality-of-life goals on which they most wanted to focus; those that attracted the most support were selected. A strategic plan was drafted to guide the democratically chosen steering committee, which meets every other week. The committee decided that it will not run its own activities, but will instead support and promote existing neighborhood groups and associations through mini-grants and a Facebook page that keeps everyone informed, connected and involved. Pathfinder provides staff to help coordinate the effort and acts as a fiscal agent, working to help identify funding sources.

With “aging in place” a growing trend for older communities, the organization is now moving into the Drover Town neighborhood of rural Huntington, with the encouragement of the town's mayor..

“We received a planning grant from the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority to develop ‘communities for a lifetime,’ which means making it possible for residents to stay there as long as they want, regardless of age or disability,” explains Jan Baumgartner, community connections director and recipient of a professional certificate in neighborhood revitalization from NeighborWorks America. Increasingly, research is showing that resiliency through social connections is as important as factors such as affordable housing when it comes to the feasibility of aging in place. Consider, for example, a new study from the University of Michigan that found that people who felt connected to their neighbors suffered significantly fewer strokes.

Each community must be approached differently, says Baumgartner, with residents choosing what to focus on and how to operate.

“We’re a facilitator…an enabler,” says Baumgartner. “We’re here to help the people who live in our service areas tap into the resources they need to fully exploit their own strengths.”

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America. She would love for you to post your own stories and comments!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Toledo group generates goodwill – and funds – with ‘buy a shingle, save a home’ campaign

How do you raise money quickly for a pressing community need, while at the same time building public awareness and buy-in? (Isn’t that all nonprofits’ “holy grail”?) William Farnsel, executive director of NeighborWorks Toledo Region in Ohio, has developed a winning formula to do just that.

Farnsel’s organization, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year as a member of the NeighborWorks network, serves a majority African-American community with higher-than-average unemployment (8.9 percent). Many of the houses are in need of the organization’s weatherization-assistance program for low-income families, which it administers with funds from the federal government, Columbia Gas and Toledo Edison. (To date, NTR has installed more than $23.7 million in insulation and other materials for 15,000-plus customers in Toledo and the broader Lucas County.)

However, if a house has a leaky roof, weatherization isn’t going to do much good. One of the city’s anchor businesses, Owens Corning, donated the necessary shingles (along with a lifetime warranty for the resulting roofs), but a lot more money for time and materials needed to be raised, and quickly, in order for the weatherization program to continue before cold weather arrived.

“It’s a chronic problem we face,” Farnsel says. “Government funding comes with processes and forms that take time to sort out. Plus, it requires bringing the entire house up to code – an even more expensive, time-consuming endeavor. So, we decided to seek private funds.”

Farnsel didn’t want the typical meal or golf outing, however. He wanted his donors to feel a more visceral connection to the impact of their giving. That’s when he hit upon his theme: “Buy a shingle; save a home.” The goal: to raise enough money to finance the replacement of four roofs – one in each of four targeted neighborhoods. The CEO of the local hospital was recruited as chair of the planning committee, which helped attract representatives of local businesses, organizations and affluent families in the community to the fundraising dinner. Attendees were invited to “purchase” a shingle (or a bundle of them, or a box of nails, depending on the amount given) – with an onsite exhibit showing exactly what is needed to tear off an existing roof, complete structural repairs and install a new one.

The next challenge was how to choose which roofs to replace first, when there were so many low-income families who could benefit. Farnsel also wanted residents in the targeted communities to feel like they were active participants and partners in the campaign. His solution: a lottery. Tickets were sold to residents for $3 each at local churches, banks and other community locations. If your roof didn’t need replacement, or you knew someone else more in need, you could buy the ticket to “gift it” to someone else.

“One woman was so desperate for a new roof that she borrowed $100 from friends and family to buy as many lottery tickets as she could,” says Farnsel. “Her roof was so bad she literally had skylights, and she was forced to use kiddy pools to catch the water when it rained.”

Joanne Born (middle) weeps with joy when she learns
she has won the "lottery."
On the day of the drawing in that neighborhood – during NeighborWorks Week of 2013 -- a young couple was seen hanging out by the street corner where the winner would be announced. Farnsel later learned that the couple was the daughter and son-in-law of Joanne Born, who had bought all those lottery tickets. She was too nervous to watch the drawing in person, and sat instead in a car at the curb. And yes, she did win that drawing. Today, she is the relieved owner of a new roof – at the cost $12,000, which she could never have afforded on her own.

NTR raised $37,000 through this event, including $900 from resident-purchased raffle tickets. The second annual event already is scheduled, for May 3, 2014.

If you’re thinking of holding a similar fundraising/public-awareness campaign, Farnsel has a few tips to offer:

Recruit supporters from the business community. In 2013, the CEO of the local hospital was enlisted as the fundraising chair, which generated both a good-sized contribution from that institution and those of his friends. In 2014, Farnsel plans to reach out to the local utility industry.

Joanne Born in front of her house, with
a new roof. (Habitat for Humanity is
set now to help refurbish her porch.)
Don’t be discouraged when the unexpected occurs. Farnsel’s campaign was very creative, and would normally have been a great local media hook. But on the same day as the drawing, an 18-month-old girl was reported missing in the neighborhood. It was a tragedy, and understandably, the event got almost zero media coverage as a result. (Note from the writer: As a veteran PR professional, I can attest to that reality; if a bigger, competing news story occurs in the same timeframe as your event, you can pretty much forget any hope of attracting media coverage. That’s why it is so important to build in other ways to measure success. And Farnsel and his team did – both in terms of money raised and partners/residents engaged. In 2014, he is planning to incorporate “impact stories” from this year’s winners as well as a “tell-a-friend” campaign.)

When developing goals and budgets, make sure you know the real costs. Don’t low-ball! The roofs that NHS ended up replacing were significantly more expensive than anticipated. Farnsel’s team had estimated $8,000 to $9,000, and Born’s, for instance, cost $12,000.

Don’t under-estimate the effort and expertise needed. NTR hired a consultant to assist with messaging, outreach and event logistics, and Farnsel says it was one of his best decisions. “There are lots of day-to-day activities required to pull a campaign and event like this off, but at the same time, we still had our ‘real’ work to do. Consider hiring outside help,” he says.

Don’t lose sight of your end goal. “You have to give something to get something,” Farnsel cautions. “Make community impact and goodwill the principal goal – not general fundraising for your organization.” About 82 cents of every dollar raised by NTR for the “Buy a Shingle, Save a Home” campaign went to the roof-replacement program. Over time, he says, events like these will help “nourish” the organization’s coffers, but that’s not the focus of the events. “The goodwill pays off over time,” Farnsel promises.

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America. She would love for you to post your own stories and comments!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Continuing need for foreclosure counseling is sign of still-ailing economy

There’s good news and bad news in the report to Congress this week on the National Foreclosure Mitigation Counseling (NFMC) program, which NeighborWorks America launched in 2008.
First, the good news: Nearly 1.6 million homeowners have received help to date from the NFMC program -- 124,512 in just the 12-month period ending on May 31, 2013. (We know the counseling helps. A 2011 Urban Institute analysis showed that individuals who take advantage of the program are more successful in obtaining mortgage modifications, and are able to negotiate larger monthly savings, than those who do not.)

Pam Bailey, new
blogger for
It’s also an improvement that in the last year, the ratio of people seeking help who have mortgages with fixed interest rates of 8 percent or less increased to nearly two-thirds (59 percent) – up from just 30 percent in October 2008. Clearly, the disastrous era of destructive “sub-prime” loans – with interest rates that soar higher over time – is on the wane.

The Great Recession and ‘jobless recovery’ take their toll

Why, then, are so many individuals still needing help to avoid foreclosure? An answer can be found in a couple of other statistics in the NFMC report: For example, when they first entered the program, nearly 37 percent of the individuals counseled in the last year were spending half of their income or more on mortgage-related costs – well above the maximum recommended 31 percent. Nearly one in five were spending more than 75 percent of their income on principal, interest, taxes and insurance – a rate that has held steady since 2008.

Housing costs have grown to be such a drag on household budgets primarily due to loss of – or a significant reduction in – employment income (reported by 64 percent of persons seeking NFMC services).   As noted in The New York Times recently, “the consequences of job loss go far beyond the spell of joblessness. Research shows that layoffs can worsen earnings, health and even mortality rates for up to 20 years after the initial displacement. Not to mention home ownership.”

This chart from the NFMC report shows that most
"Level Four" individuals (who have a debt-to-income
ratio of 55%) who seek counseling are aged 45-64.
There are two groups of people who seem to be struggling the most: recent graduates and older workers. A report from The Opportunity Nation released just this week documented that almost 15 percent of individuals between the ages of 16 and 24 (that’s almost 6 million young people) cannot find jobs once they have completed school. However, according to the U.S. Labor Department, while unemployment rates for newly graduated students are higher, older workers who have been laid off have a much harder time finding work. Over the last year, the average duration of unemployment for older people was 53 weeks, compared with 19 weeks for teenagers and young adults. (The NFMC report reflects this trend. Slightly more than half – 53.9 percent – of individuals seeking counseling through the program who have debt-to-income ratios of 55 percent or higher are between the ages of 45 and 64.)

This is a subject that hits close to home for me. After living overseas for three years, I returned home in late 2011 to the Great Recession and a forbidding job market.  I found my way to several LinkedIn forums and discovered large communities of mostly over-50 professionals who had been laid off and just could not find new positions. And the longer they were out of work, the harder it seemed to be to get interviews – a discrimination against the long-term unemployed confirmed by recent research.

Chronic unemployment becomes vicious cycle

A study conducted by Rand Ghayad, a visiting scholar at the Boston Fed, and William Dickens, a professor of economics at Northeastern University, found that as long as you've been out of work for less than six months, you can get called by companies for interviews even if you don't have experience. But after you've been unemployed for six months, it doesn't matter what experience you have. Quite literally.

“There's a new cliff in town, and it's much scarier than the fiscal cliff,” wrote Matthew O’Brien in The Atlantic in December. “It doesn't have anything to do with expiring tax cuts or sequesters. It has to do with people who have been out of work for six months or longer. It's the worst cliff of them all: the Unemployment Cliff.”

My new LinkedIn connections soon got to the point when they felt lucky to be offered any job, even at administrative levels and salaries far below what they once earned. Many a story was posted about having to give up homes and move in with others, whether friends or adult children. And those were perhaps the lucky ones; they had people who would take them in. I didn’t have a house to pay for, fortunately, but rents are high in the DC area, and as I started my job search, I felt their fear. (You can read some of their gut-wrenching stories on the website, "Over 50 and Out of Work.")

Indeed, says Vivien King, a senior manager at NeighborWorks America who works with the NFMC program, although the service has been able to help thousands of families stay in their homes, it is not always possible. “Sometimes a successful outcome is transition out of their home,” she says.

Mr. Chavez (far left)and his daughter with Gerber DeLeĆ³n -- a
homeownership preservation specialist with
NeighborWorks member Select Milwaukee.
Consider the Chavez family, who like 19 percent of NFMC clients, are Hispanic (a segment that is just 8 percent of the overall U.S. population and thus is over-represented among those seeking help from the program, along with African-Americans). In 2001, the couple and their four children had moved into a small duplex, followed by purchase of their first single-family home in 2007. They held onto their duplex, renting it out for additional income. Then their world turned upside down. In November of 2011, Ms. Chavez was let go from her full-time job, and the loss of the second income strained the family’s finances so much that they fell behind on their mortgage.  They tried to re-negotiate the terms, but by that time their financial condition was too shaky to allow them to qualify.

Their lender referred them to a NeighborWorks organization, where a Spanish-speaking counselor was able to provide the trusted advice they so desperately needed.  With Ms. Chavez still out of work and no offers on their house after several months on the market, the organization’s counselor helped guide the couple through a deed-in-lieu agreement with the lender, avoiding foreclosure.  Fortunately for the Chavez family, they had a fall-back -- the duplex they had rented out. Today, they live in the duplex, and although they had to give up both their single-family home and the down payment they had invested, they report an overwhelming sense of relief, free of the burden of struggling to make ends meet – and losing.

The Chavez family is relatively fortunate. They had a back-up option. Many others do not, and need assistance in finding new housing that is more affordable. This is why I am so glad to have joined the staff of NeighborWorks America. I can’t find jobs that pay a decent salary for all of those hard-working individuals I met on LinkedIn. But now I can do my part to help make sure they at least can find or keep an affordable place in a good community to call home.

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America. She would love for you to post your own stories and comments!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Baltimore group serves community through ‘matchmaking’ and eHarmony could learn a thing or two from the homesharing service offered by St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center in Baltimore: Even the most sophisticated computer algorithms can’t replace good old-fashioned matchmaking, in which professionals get to know clients one-on-one to decide who would make a good “fit.”

It’s a simple concept: There are homeowners who need help paying their mortgage or other expenses, or just want the company. And there are other people who need an affordable place to call home. Why not match them up?

“The idea of homesharing was ‘born’ in the 1970s as a product of the Gray Panthers movement, and St. Ambrose was among the first housing organizations to join, in 1988,” comments Rebecca Burrett Sheppard, director of the program for St. Ambrose and president of the national association for professionals in this arena. “‘The U.S. census had just shown that more than 35,000 widows and widowers were living alone in single-family dwellings in Baltimore, and homesharing was a way of allowing these older individuals to ‘age in place’ – helping them with both chores and income.”  

St. Ambrose, a NeighborWorks organization that is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, has seen its homesharing program grow exponentially since those early years, fueled since the 2008 housing crisis by homeowners of all ages who need extra income and seekers who are desperate for an affordable rental option.  To date, the organization has made 1,651 matches, about 65-80 annually.

Odd couples can make good matches

An older white woman and younger black woman share a home, offering the benefits of diversity.
Increasing diversity in the neighborhoods
is often a side benefit of homesharing
Currently, slightly more than half of the participants are earning just 30 percent or less of the area median income, with 43 percent between the ages of 40 and 60 and 44 percent between 60 and 80. More than a third (37 percent) of the matches are intergenerational (with the provider and seeker more than 15 years apart in age). The largest age difference the program has seen so far is 37 years.

One such match is Austin Jones, 86, who now has a 28-year-old housemate.

“I moved to West Baltimore in 1982,” explains Jones. “I bought into a co-op and shared it with my cousin. When he died, it was ok, because I was working. But then I had to retire five or six years ago and my Social Security payments aren’t enough to pay all of my expenses. I’ve been in the St. Ambrose homesharing program ever since.”

Jones has had about five housemates over the course of the years, including two currently. John Pittman, the 28-year-old, moved in about a month ago when his roommate moved out and he couldn't afford to live on his own. Pittman says Jones offers both the affordable rent and privacy he needs, and plans to stay at least until he can pay off his debts.

“All of my housemates have worked out pretty well,” says Jones, adding that his most important criteria are tidiness, a history clean of serious crime and good health. (“I’m too old to be able to take care of anyone,” he explains.) “I give Annette (his St. Ambrose “matchmaker”) an A+. She always finds me good people.”

St. Ambrose staff personally interview every applicant for the program, conduct home visits, check criminal records, verify income and contact four personal references for each potential participant. After the counselor identifies a match, the homeowner and house-seeker meet and decide whether they have good chemistry. If it’s a go, the “matchmaker” helps the two structure a written agreement, stipulating the rent to be paid, how chores will be divided, the policy on guests, etc. Arrangements are always month-to-month, to allow maximum flexibility, and the staff keeps in touch for the first year to help work out any problems. (That’s another feature dating sites could benefit from – follow-up “troubleshooting”!) Although the average duration is 18-24 months, Sheppard says three St. Ambrose matches have been together since the 1990s. There are others, however, that last only a couple of months by design.

“It’s not a requirement, but we do see a lot of diverse pairings work out quite well,” says Sheppard, recalling a quadriplegic widower who welcomed an under-employed IT professional, and a chronically homeless 30-year-old who moved in with a 50-something social worker. “The possibilities are infinite.”

Lessons learned for others

Sheppard has become something of national expert on homesharing, and often consults with other organizations considering starting their own program. In fact, she recently returned from New Jersey, where another NeighborWorks organization is initiating one to help people still struggling to make ends meet following the devastation of Superstorm Sandy.

If you’re intrigued by the homesharing concept, here are a few tips from Sheppard:

1. Dedicate sufficient staff to the effort. To get the program off the ground properly, she recommends one full-time employee.
2. Learn from others when it comes to policies and procedures. Expertise and thoughtfulness are required to develop a success record.
3. Don’t skimp on marketing and outreach. Remember, Sheppard says, you have to identify and “cultivate” two separate customer segments: homeowners and seekers. St. Ambrose relies on tactics such as Craig’s List, public service announcements on local media and outreach to other organizations.
4. Don’t expect huge success in the first year. “These programs start slow, but grow exponentially,” she cautions. “Cultivating a client base can take a number of years, but if you’re successful, you’ll eventually be self-sustaining – a very good place to be.”

Friday, October 11, 2013

Avesta’s housing-first model for homeless defies common practice: it works!

In March of 2012, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan reported that the average cost of a single homeless person in America was $40,000 a year.  The long list of services used by the homeless proves that traditional efforts to transition them to sustainable, self-sufficient living are not working.

But what if, instead of focusing on services that prepare the homeless to live off the streets, we turn that model on its head and start with housing first?

That’s exactly what Dana Trotman, president of Avesta Housing in Maine, did with his Logan Place and Florence House developments, and the results are inspiring. Over the course of the first year, Logan Place tenants who participated in a study spent 21 nights in jail as opposed to 171 the previous year, used 140 beds in emergency shelters instead of 5,163, and experienced a 70 percent reduction in medical costs.  Creating a sense of stability and safety by offering a clean and safe place first may just be the key to combating chronic homelessness.

Fifth-anniversary seal
Founded in 1972 and chartered as part of the NeighborWorks Network in 2008 (making this year its fifth anniversary), Avesta Housing shared a similar course with other successful housing non-profits as it expanded its asset portfolio as well as the breadth and depth of its services.  But in March 2005, Avesta moved in a direction that would make it an innovative leader in serving the homeless population.  The organization opened Logan Place in an effort to show the cost-effectiveness of providing chronically homeless persons safe, private housing.

Supportive services vs. housing first

The typical model of serving the homeless is based on offering nights in a shelter, nutritious meals and access to limited health care. However, while studies have shown this approach helps approximately 80 percent of participants find permanent shelter, the other 20 percent stay on the streets, perpetually gobbling up services at a high cost to the public.  These individuals rotate spending their nights in shelters with stays in the emergency room, jail or out on the streets, in a cycle without end.

Logan Place, which provides secure housing to the previously homeless
Logan Place provides 30 previously chronically homeless
individuals a safe, stable place to live.
With the opening of Logan Place, however, Avesta moved toward a new model that recognizes the additional benefits that come from having a place to live.  The reduced stress and anxiety over one’s safety at night offers rest to otherwise weary and ill minds.  The opportunity to shower daily and care for personal hygiene in the comfort of a private bathroom brings a look of health and vitality to faces that had been missing for years – which in turn helps them find work.  With the accessibility of a kitchen pantry and refrigerator, combined with the security of long-term housing, they no longer have to live day to day.

That is the key to the success of Logan Place and Avesta.  By helping chronically homeless individuals achieve a lifestyle that feels safe and dependable, they can begin to focus beyond the most basic human needs.  Many individuals, who avoided psychiatric help before, not only see counselors but choose to host their sessions in their apartments, expressing pride in their new homes.  Others work to develop better general health, allowing them to focus on preventive and ongoing treatments, thus avoiding the costlier and less-effective emergency visits.  Several work as volunteers at the development’s administrative front desk, developing new skills that help them find paying work.

As should be the case with all good ideas, success begat success and in 2010, Avesta opened the women’s-only Florence House.  Developed in response to a crisis in female homelessness after the closing of the local YWCA, Florence House offers 25 apartments, as well as 15 semi-private units, a large kitchen that feeds the residents, community space and laundry facilities.

Avesta touts its Housing First approach as “a solution-oriented response to the problem of chronic homelessness -- a way to end homelessness, not manage it.” So far, the results look promising.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Texas group profiled in local newspaper for protecting homeownership through tough times

NeighborWorks America is honoring our many creative member organizations this year by featuring in our blog those that are celebrating milestone anniversaries. We were pleased to discover that we didn't have to write a testimonial for NeighborWorks Waco, because the WacoTrib did it for us. Read for yourself...

Robert Jackson expected good things from NeighborWorks Waco.

20th-anniversary seal
Jackson was the treasurer of the newly formed Brooks Avenue Neighborhood Association in 1993, when the group decided to contribute $10,000 to help jump start the new housing organization, believing it could help more residents buy homes in the Greater Waco area.

But he didn’t expect that he would wind up being one of those residents who would need the nonprofit group’s help to buy his first home.

Read the full article

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Rhode Island group capitalizes on ethnic diversity to strengthen local economy

It was the late 1970s, and the United States was embroiled in the Vietnam War, bringing an influx of refugees to the country. Providence, Rhode Island, was one of the early magnets for the stream of Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants, due in part to its central coastal location, relatively affordable cost of living and accessibility of support services.  With the economy slumping and redlining rampant, however, the community struggled to adapt.

“Integrating all of these new arrivals was a challenge at a time when our local economy was in a crisis,” recalls Sharon Conard-Wells, one of a group of volunteers who organized around the need to assure that affordable housing was available to everyone. “The federal government had just begun offering a zero-down payment program for new homeowners, so we mobilized to bring some of those funds to our city.”

15th anniversary "seal"
Thus, the group that would become West Elmwood Housing Development was born – first just a loose, volunteer effort, then an official nonprofit in 1986 and finally, a charter member of NeighborWorks America in 1998 – making 2013 its 15th anniversary as a member of the network.

“I had seen the value that being a member of NeighborWorks America brought to an organization,” recalls Conard-Wells, who later became the group’s executive director. “Knowing how politics works was enough to get us money, but NeighborWorks America affiliation offered two other benefits money can’t buy – professional development, and a national network that broadens your base. I wanted that for West Elmwood.”

Hub for immigrants

The “West End” community of Providence, which the organization primarily serves, has changed in many ways since those early years – including a slight decline in residents from 14,186 in 2000 to 13,844 in 2010. But what has continued to grow is its cultural diversity. Fifty-seven percent of its residents today are Hispanic, 18 percent are black, 11 percent are Asian and 32 percent are “other” or a combination. What is even more defining about the community is that nearly 40 percent of West End residents were born outside of the United States (compared to just 13 percent across the state and nationwide).  According to the Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, the influx of refugees over time has shifted from Southeast Asians and Liberians to (in the last five years) a more diverse mix from Bhutan, Burma, Central Africa (Congo, Central African Republic and Burundi), East Africa (Ethiopia and Eritrea) and Iraq. Two-thirds of the residents speak a language other than English at home.

That reality about the community it serves has led West Elmwood in some innovative directions in its quest to serve its constituents. One of its current initiatives is called the Sankofa Project – named for a word from Ghana that means, literally, “go back (to the past) and get it.” For the West End community, that means capitalizing on residents’ family and cultural backgrounds to solve local problems.  

“For example, residents of the West End community currently have limited access to affordable, fresh, culturally desirable foods,” explains Rachel Newman Greene, director of partnerships and community projects. “In fact, I’d call West End a food desert. There is no full-service supermarket, and while there is a farmer’s market, it’s not affordable and doesn't cater to an ethnically diverse population.”

Food desert to cultural marketplace

The goal of the Sankofa Project is to fill that gap, while also providing a source of local income. The centerpiece of the project is the transformation of 30,000 square feet of land into a mixed-use development featuring: 
affordable rental housing  (50 one- to three-bedroom units).
an agricultural space that includes both community gardens and small farms/microbusinesses. 
a “world market” with booths for selling the agricultural goods as well as crafts, tailored clothing and other locally made products.
a community building.

Two immigrant women from Liberia sell their produce in one of West Elmwood's small farmers' markets.
Garmei Mawolo (left), originally from Liberia, and another
 gardener sell their produce at one of West Elmwood's farmers’
markets. They are selling (from left to right) sour leaf
 (red sorrel), habanero peppers, Malabar (water) spinach,
squash tendrils and leaf amaranth (m’chicha).
“I don’t know of any other organizations that have a project like this on such a large, contiguous space,” says Angie Bannerman, chair of the committee in charge of the initiative and a West End resident for 36 years. 

Identifying and acquiring that much vacant land is a challenge in the Northeast, and in the beginning of its work, the organization focused on individual lots on which it renovated old buildings for offices or lofts, converted them into community gardens or leased them out for small farmers’ markets. However, the West End community was “blessed” by stretches of formerly industrial properties, now abandoned, and over time it was able to gradually acquire the property for the ambitious Sankofa Project with the help of a state land bank. 

 “We’re designing this to be the main social focus of the community – a gathering place that will feel familiar to immigrants who come from more market-based cultures, while also improving their diets and developing entrepreneurial sources of income by attracting people from throughout the city and state,”  says Greene.  

Phase 1 of the project, a small tree farm, already is funded and complete. Phase 2, now underway, encompasses rented lots for planting, including two greenhouses, and a seasonal farmers’ market designed to begin establishing a customer base. The rest of the agricultural and market development will follow, and the final, fourth stage will be the housing (targeted for completion in the spring of 2015). 

“Of course, we offer a lot of other services, such as financial counseling and programs for youth that use hip hop to encourage self-esteem,” says Conard-Wells. “The constant is our commitment to recognizing and celebrating their diversity, and sticking with them for the long term. So, for instance, when residents complete our homebuyer education programs, we don’t give them a graduation certificate. We give them a ‘friend-for-life’ certificate.”