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!