Schenectady County

Community Action Program brings in human element

The goal of the Schenectady Community Action Program’s new story-sharing campaign, Long Story Short,

When Crystal Hodge landed at Sojourn House, the women’s shelter run by the Schenectady Community Action Program, she had little money and few material possessions. She had just left an abusive boyfriend and needed a place to stay.

“[SCAP] gave me the necessities,” said Hodge, 29, of Schenectady. “They gave me a roof over my head, a safe environment for me and my son. They gave me counseling if I needed it. They gave me food and clothing if I needed it. They gave me a safe haven.”

Hodge eventually left Sojourn House, but found herself back at SCAP a short time later, enrolled in its certified nursing assistant certificate program.

Living in poverty

Percentage of people living in poverty in the Capital Region

Albany County — 13 percent

Fulton County — 16.9 percent

Montgomery County — 18.3 percent

Rensselaer County — 12.6 percent

Saratoga County — 6.3 percent

Schenectady County — 12.5 percent

Schoharie County — 9.8 percent

City of Albany — 25.3 percent

City of Saratoga Springs — 6.9 percent

City of Schenectady — 23.4 percent

City of Troy — 28 percent

New York poverty rate — 15.1 percent

U.S. poverty rate — 14.4 percent

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

“I wanted to become financially independent,” she said. “I wanted to break through, but I didn’t know how.”

Today, Hodge works at the Glendale Home, the Schenectady County-owned nursing and rehabilitation facility in Scotia, and plans to become a registered nurse. She earns too much money to qualify for the Medicaid, food stamps and Women, Infants and Children program assistance she once received.

“I don’t qualify for anything anymore,” Hodge said with a laugh.

Hodge’s story is featured in the Schenectady Community Action Program’s new story-sharing campaign, Long Story Short. The goal of the campaign is to educate people about the work SCAP does to lift people out of poverty, provide a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be poor and counteract negative stereotypes about poor people.

“We’re trying to reduce the stigma associated with being poor,” said Deb Schimpf, SCAP’s executive director. “We’re been making a concerted effort to have more of a dialogue about what we do. We’ve been collecting stories for a long time, and we’ve done an inadequate job of sharing them.”

There’s a renewed emphasis on storytelling in the nonprofit world, with publications such as The Chronicle of Philanthropy holding web-based presentations and running articles on the subject. In a video featured on the publication’s website, Peter Sagal, host of the National Public Radio game show “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”, talks about how to tell stories in a way that connects with donors.

“The advantage that nonprofits and charities have is that giving is a pleasure,” Sagal says on the website. “It can be fun, but it’s not a given that it’s fun. You need to find a way to let people access the joy of giving.”

Hodge and her 3-year-old son are pictured on a poster that SCAP is distributing throughout the community. The poster, which features the slogan “Because Our Stories Matter,” invites people to donate, includes a phone number people can call for assistance and provides other information about the organization. Her story is also on SCAP’s website, along with six others. More stories will be added; by the end of 2013, there will be 52, one for each week of the year.

SCAP is a nonprofit organization that provides a range of services to low-income people, including job assistance, housing for the homeless and disabled, assistance with heating costs and transportation, and child education programs, such as Head Start. The storytelling campaign was launched in conjunction with this month’s National Community Action Month.

Community action agencies are nonprofit private and public organizations established under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 as part of the War on Poverty. There are about 1,000 such agencies throughout the country, 52 in New York state.

Karla Digirolamo, CEO of the New York State Community Action Association, said the goal of National Community Action Month is to educate the public about these agencies.

“Community action agencies have kept a low profile,” she said. “A lot of folks might be familiar with a particular agency but not know the breadth of services.”

Directors of area nonprofits believe public discussion of poverty has become increasingly negative, with politicians in particular much likelier to cast aspersions on poor people than in the past.

“It’s gotten to new levels,” Schimpf said. “Since 2009 and the economic downturn, maybe people who weren’t thinking that way are now thinking that way — that poor people are laying around doing nothing. But if the average middle class family had to survive in poverty, they’d see that the poor are not just lying around on their couch all day.”

“Poverty has become almost a four-letter word,” Digirolamo said. “It’s turned from a war on poverty into almost a war on poor people.”

Michael Saccocio, executive director of the City Mission of Schenectady, said people are exhausted by reports of increasing poverty, but also inspired by them.

“I see deeper compassion and commitment, and I hear from people who want to do more,” he said. “And I hear more compassion fatigue.”

He said he wants to have a dialogue about the work the City Mission, and the nonprofit sector in general, does.

“In the end, we see the people who give to us as partners,” he said. “And partners ask questions.”

Saccocio is a big believer in storytelling. He said that when he was younger he emphasized statistics when talking about the mission’s work with donors and other members of the public, but he now believes stories about individual clients are more effective.

“The heart is in the stories,” he said. “They make complex things understandable. The mission runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The people who invest in us need to understand what’s happening, and stories help them do that.”

The City Mission uses “almost every form of communication” to tell stories, from social media such as Facebook to gift solicitations and newsletters, Saccocio said.

“Whenever I write thank-you notes to people, I include a story,” he said.

Not all of the stories shared by the organization are positive.

“Even more compelling are the stories of falling short,” Saccocio said. “Failure is complex, and those stories help people to understand that.”

The Rev. Phil Grigsby, executive director of the Schenectady Inner City Ministry, believes storytelling is more important than ever.

“One of the lessons of the Great Recession is that groups need to become much more visible and focused and do a better job of telling the story,” he said. “The recovery has not been very quick, and there’s increased competition for resources that aren’t easy to get.”

SCAP’s story-sharing campaign comes at a time when more people are seeking assistance from the nonprofit organization than ever before. This demand comes at a time when cuts to social service programs and grant funding has made it harder to obtain the money needed to fund long-standing programs and start new programs to address emerging problems.

As a result, groups that have long relied on grant funding find themselves seeking more money from individuals and businesses in their own community.

Prior to the recession, SCAP helped about 4,000 people each year; today the agency helps more than 8,000 people each year. Among SCAP’s most popular programs are its career readiness programs, which help provide people with job placement and training.

In 2011, a five-year, $11.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services enabled the organization to launch a program that trains people for careers in the health care industry in partnership with the Albany Community Action Program and Schenectady County Community College.

The Fulmont Community Action Agency, which serves Fulton and Montgomery counties, held a community action celebration earlier for National Community Action Month. Ann Black, the organization’s deputy executive director, said demand for services continues to rise, even as funding becomes tighter. As a result of the sweeping, across-the-board federal cuts known as sequestration, 18 children were forced to leave FCAA’s Head Start program, and more cuts to programs are expected.

Black said the Fulmont Community Action Agency hasn’t conducted a story-telling campaign, but said it sounded like a good idea.

Schimpf said one of Long Story Short’s goals is to show people their donations make a difference.

“We do want people to feel like there’s hope, that their taxes and their donations aren’t just being dumped into a black hole,” she said.

More people are struggling because it’s become harder to make ends meet, according to directors of local anti-poverty organizations. Since the recession, there have been fewer jobs, and much of the job growth has been concentrated in low-wage industries, such as retail and fast food. Because the market is tighter, it’s harder for teenagers and young adults to break into the workplace, as most employers would prefer to hire adults with some work experience.

Digirolamo said poverty is not on the national agenda, even though more people live below the poverty line — about $24,000 for a family of four — and more people are at risk of slipping below the poverty line.

“We don’t want to talk about the fact that there’s deep poverty in our communities,” Digirolamo said. “We need to start having a discussion we don’t want to have.”

One area worth discussing, she said, would be the idea that all people should earn a living wage — that everyone who works full-time should be able to earn enough money to live above the poverty line. She said the recession “reminded some of us that we’re not so far away from the edge as we once were. There’s less separating the middle class from poverty.”

In March, the New York State Community Action Association released its sixth annual poverty report, which compiles poverty statistics for every county in the state using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

According to the report, 15.1 percent of New Yorkers live in poverty. The state has the 25th highest poverty rate in the U.S., but ranks fourth in the actual number of individuals living in poverty. More than 37 percent of female-headed households with children live in poverty in New York, while 25.8 percent of Latinos and 23 percent of blacks live in poverty, compared to 10.9 percent of white New Yorkers.

Hodge grew up in the Bronx. She was raised by her grandparents after both her mother and father died from complications of HIV/AIDS. She attended college and received her certified nursing assistant license, but had trouble finding a job.

In 2009, she moved to Schenectady for “a change of pace.” Her CNA certification had lapsed by the time she enrolled in SCAP’s training program.

Hodge said she shared her story to help other women in abusive relationships.

“I know I’m not the only one struggling,” she said. “I’m not the only one in a domestic violence situation. If I can help one person get the strength to walk out, that’s an awesome feeling.”

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