Inspired By Community

Howard County's Community Action Council provides for those in need

Article by Kenyatta Greer

Photography by Pam Long Photography

Originally published in Columbia Lifestyle

Howard County is affluent, and thriving, and full of opportunity. But, like in every other community, there are families here who struggle every day to survive.

Twenty-six percent of Howard County residents have trouble paying their bills and providing for their families.  Five percent of this community lives below the poverty line and, while that may look like a small number, that figure can be deceiving without context. Poverty is determined by household size, and that line of demarcation currently sits at a paltry $25,000. A family earning anything more than that does not live in poverty, so determines the U.S. Census Bureau. But the United Way’s 2016 ALICE Report shows that it takes approximately $86,500 annually for that same family of four to meet the basic needs of living and working in Howard County. That highlights a huge gap.

In the 1960s, under President Lyndon B. Johnson, a series of Community Action Agencies were created to provide a network of support, helping people become self-sufficient. The Community Action Council (CAC) of Howard County is a non-profit serving 35,000 people within the county every year.

The group covers four main areas of need: Head Start and pre-kindergarten education, eviction prevention, food support, and energy bill assistance.

The CAC provides all of the Head Start programming in the county through four early childhood education centers. They see 322 students in full-day programming and provide before- and after-school care. They do not directly place families currently experiencing homelessness, but they provide funding to keep families facing eviction crises. They run the Howard County Food Bank and support 14 other food pantries. And, they are the only entity in the county who provides assistance for families and aging individuals who are suffering under the rising costs of energy bills. They also offer weatherization updates in multi-unit homes to make them energy efficient – a bonus to property owners, too, who won’t have to pay full price to improve this facet of their units.

Tackling the Trouble

 Jen Grieb, director of resource development for CAC, spends a great deal of time doing advocacy work that informs, educates, raises financial support, and engages volunteers. “My job is to build relationships. In a world that is so crazy, it’s probably one of the biggest blessings to me to be involved with people every day who want to make this world a better place,” she says.

The CAC partners with numerous other agencies to help address the need gap. “I feel like our work is impactful because of our community partnerships. We may have someone who is currently homeless come to one of our offices. That is not really a service we provide, but Grassroots, another great service in our county, can help. We refer to them,” Grieb explains.

Howard County has a nonprofit collaborative where several service organizations are housed, including CAC, which has seven campuses total. They are part of a referral network, and a large network of church partnerships, as well. Those organizations funnel families in crisis to CAC and vice versa. Program integration is when they take someone who might come in for one service and connect them with a staff person who is cross trained and screens for other services to see how he or she might help. They have a “no wrong door” approach, so that staff do whatever they can get to get families out of whatever crises they’re experiencing, no matter for what they came through into the center.

They satisfy part of that need through fundraisers like the Holland Awards Dinner. The event raises funds for the organization, but it is primarily a celebration of tremendous change-makers. The dinner, named in recognition of Reverend John W. Holland, annually recognizes an individual or organization that demonstrates extraordinary commitment and dedication to serving the most vulnerable in Howard County. Reverend Holland was a lifelong resident of Howard County. Through his ministry and civic leadership, he was a force in shaping the quality of life in the county.

The Reason Realized

For Grieb, there are moments that make it clear she’s doing the work she was meant to do. “Gwen, one of our family service workers, started as a Head Start parent. She was in their shoes. She had a similar journey. I am frequently reminded of her mantra to avoid walking in front of or behind our families, but to instead walk beside them in their journey and to meet them where they are.”

Much of their work is about connection, Grieb explains. They build engagement and activity in their clients, creating a network of support outside of staff and including other parents. It has helped propel many of their clients forward. They promote a coaching culture – internally and with their clients. They look for the ability to help stabilize families and then help them identify and work toward a goal. For some families, that may include a parent starting or finishing college, earning a certification, or finding a job with a career path.

About six or seven years ago, a new client connected with Gwen and identified a goal to become a nurse. During her journey, she divorced, becoming a single mother, and had to pause and restructure her journey. She became stable and participated in a rental assistance program that helped subsidize her rent, while she put away what she saved on living expenses to go toward finishing her education. Throughout the process, she would tell herself and her CAC family, “Maybe not this year. Maybe next year.” Eventually, her “maybe next years” became “maybe next month.” Recently, the woman, who is out of crisis and has not been a client for several years, emailed a picture of her walking across the graduation stage to Grieb. The caption read, “This is my year.” She is now a full-time emergency room nurse and her children are thriving.

Grieb recalls this moment through tears, saying, “That took resilience, and it took someone like Gwen emotionally walking alongside her to present her journey in manageable chunks. Every time I talk with her, I get emotional.”

And she wants you to know that you can help facilitate moments like this.

Helping Howard County

Outside of the holidays, Grieb reiterates that there is always a need. The food bank has only six full-time employees but sees about 30,000 clients each year. Volunteers are enthusiastically welcome to sort donations, stock shelves, help clients to shop, and harvest and plant the group’s organic community garden.  There are volunteers in CAC’s main office doing administrative tasks and in education centers reading to students

Item donations are appreciated, but cash donations allow the group to purchase more in bulk than what individuals can purchase themselves.

There is a way for almost everyone to help.

Greib’s work follows her everywhere she goes, because the need is everywhere. “When I see a panhandler at a light, I might tell him, ‘I don’t know your story. You don’t have to tell me, but you don’t have to be here either. Here’s my card. There are services that can help you. We can help you turn this around.’”

There is no judgement, she says. Everyone has highs and lows. 

To find out how you can help, visit CAC-HC.org or email Jen Grieb at jgrieb@cac-hc.org.

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