Below the Line: Brighton Center has helped thousands of families lift themselves out of poverty

'If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be here.'

As part of WCPO's ongoing coverage of childhood poverty online and on air, we are profiling local organizations helping families out of poverty. This is the first in a series of stories about what is working.

NEWPORT, Ky. — Tasha Ross moved to Newport in 2013 for a fresh start.

The city of Columbus eliminated her job as a breastfeeding counselor as part of budget cuts, and she and her husband decided there would be more opportunities in Greater Cincinnati for them and their children.

But starting over was tougher than they expected, and the family ended up homeless.

Ross sought help from Brighton Center, a Newport-based nonprofit that has been offering support to families in need for nearly 50 years.

Center staff told Ross about all the programs the organization offers to help families become financially stable and self-sufficient.

Ross got food and rental assistance that helped her family find a home. A caseworker pointed her to resources to help her kids in school. Eventually she and her husband enrolled in the organization's Center for Employment Training to learn new job skills. When the couple started having marital problems, a Brighton Center staffer even recommended a marriage counselor.

Brighton Center is one of nine nonprofits that will benefit from Holiday Toy Team 9 on Dec. 5. Click here for details.

Her marriage ended, but Ross continued her classes in the center's Medical Assisting program, one of several workforce development classes that Brighton Center offers. She graduated in October, winning one of the program's highest honors for her reliability, professionalism and positive attitude in the face of adversity.

"Thank you Brighton Center, my instructors and all the Brighton Center staff," Ross said during the speech she gave at the graduation ceremony. "If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be here."

Tasha Ross received the Downey Grayson Award and gave a speech when she graduated from Center for Employment Training. (Phil Didion for WCPO)

Organizations in Greater Cincinnati on the front lines of the region's childhood poverty crisis have learned that to help poor kids, they must help entire families. It's something Brighton Center has known for years.

Ross and her three children are among the nearly 61,000 people who got help from Brighton Center programs during its most recent budget year, which ended June 30. During its previous budget year, the organization served 84,394 people.

"Brighton Center is without a doubt one of our top performing community partners," said Ross Meyer, vice president of community impact at United Way of Greater Cincinnati.

'We Know That People Have To Get Stable'

Brighton Center is effective for a number of reasons, Meyer said:

Comprehensive services. "They really have built in the capability to look at the whole picture," he said. The organization has 37 different programs and services that clients can use to help their families out of poverty.

The use of data. Brighton Center tracks its results to figure out what works, what doesn't and makes changes to programs to make them more effective, he said. In fact, Brighton Center does an in-depth community survey every four years to determine which programs are most needed.

Community roots. After nearly 50 years of helping people in Northern Kentucky and beyond, Brighton Center has earned the trust of the people it helps, Meyer said.

Brighton Center has won national accolades for its work, too.

It was one of just 10 organizations nationwide to be recognized at the White House in 2014 for its work using a "Financial Opportunity Center" philosophy. Financial Opportunity Centers help families become stable and self-sufficient through a combination of financial coaching, job training and family support. Brighton Center had 858 formerly unemployed or underemployed clients get and keep jobs for at least 90 days during its last budget year, and the organization helped 1,168 people save money for the future.

"We know that people have to get stable, get good jobs, have to keep those jobs and build assets. So when that emergency happens, they're not thrown into a situation," said Melissa Hall Sommer, Brighton Center's senior director of family economic success, who went to the White House last year with one of the organization's customers. "We have a lot of people working paycheck to paycheck, and they're one catastrophe away from everything falling apart."

That's true for tens of thousands of families across Greater Cincinnati. The 2014 U.S. Census American Community Survey, released in September, estimated that 30 percent of all residents of the city of Cincinnati live in poverty. For children, the figure is 44 percent.

Across the entire Greater Cincinnati region, nearly one in five children live in poverty.

Tasha Ross never thought that would include her three kids.

Before the budget cuts in 2013, Ross had a job she loved. She had skills and training.

But losing that job started a financial decline that has been difficult to recover from.

Ross now works as a medical assistant — a job she sees as a perfect fit. Her hourly pay isn't as high as what she earned in Columbus. But she gets more hours, and the work is consistent, she said.

She and her kids are living in a rental house with enough bedrooms for everyone to have their own space.

Tasha Ross with her three children and her mother at her graduation ceremony. (Phil Didion for WCPO)

"My kids are amazing. They have remained really resilient throughout the whole process," Ross said, choking back tears. "Now, that we're doing better, I can see that they're doing a lot better. I can just see that their light is coming back."

'Inherent Worth And Dignity'

Brighton Center has 37 different programs aimed at fulfilling its mission: "To create opportunities for individuals and families to reach self-sufficiency through support services, education, employment and leadership."

All Brighton Center's work is built on a foundation of core values that include:

• "Each individual has inherent worth and dignity."

• "All families and individuals know their situation better than anyone and are able to examine choices and make decisions that will affected their lives."

• And "our community is strengthened by our partnership with families and individuals."

That means Brighton Center's clients — people like Ross — are the ones who decide which programs and services can help their families get back on track.

And while business and community leaders across the region are focused on reducing Greater Cincinnati's childhood poverty rate, Brighton Center staff members know that it's impossible to help kids without helping the adults in their lives, too.

"You can't look at childhood poverty in isolation without the family," said Talia Frye, Brighton Center's workforce development director. "We're really looking at families holistically and doing that two-generation approach."

That's been Brighton Center's focus from the start. It started out nearly 50 years ago as a storefront that offered summer programs for kids and emergency assistance for poor families.

The organization has grown over time based on community surveys it does every four years to figure out what services people need and want to help build better lives for themselves.

Tasha Ross with Brighton Center staff members at her graduation ceremony.

The Financial Opportunity Center approach is aimed at teaching people how to manage their finances, build credit and stay out of foreclosure, Frye said. Brighton Center also provides the support adults need to keep their jobs, such as affordable childcare, a food pantry, addiction recovery programs and quality, after-school programs.

"It's a new playing field for the working poor," Frye said. "Through our Family Center, 73 percent of the people that accessed our emergency food pantry last year had a job. These are working people that still can't feed their families at night."

The Importance of Hopes And Dreams

More and more entry-level jobs are part-time or seasonal, Frye said, which results in wild fluctuations in family incomes. Rising utility costs and a lack of affordable housing compound the problem.

"Years ago, we used to look at when people got off assistance, that was self-sufficiency," Sommer said. "That's not self-sufficiency."

Brighton Center has learned over the years to help families build networks of support and financial strength so they can move beyond needing the organization's emergency services. Brighton Center doesn't keep statistics on exactly how many clients achieve those goals. But many come back to volunteer or get assistance to buy a home or get their taxes filed after they are financially stable, said Deana Sowders, Brighton Center's marketing and communications specialist.

Brighton Center believes that every person — even the most desperately poor — has hopes and dreams.

Sometimes the adults who go there for help can only talk about the hopes and dreams they have for their children, Sommer said, because they have given up on their own.

Brighton Center employees explain that the adults' hopes and dreams tie back to their kids, she said.

"People in poverty, sometimes they feel like they don't have the luxury of hopes and dreams, but everybody does," Sommer said. "It's about saying that we don't set the limits on what's going to happen in your life. We are here to facilitate."

That's exactly what Brighton Center has done for Tasha Ross and her children.

It will take a while before Ross feels completely financially stable, she said. She continues to get clothes from Brighton Center's Clothing Closet for her kids from time to time. And she's still living in government-subsidized housing for now.

"We've been through so many changes," she said. "I'm just going to take my time and make sure we're completely stable before we move anywhere else."

Along the way, Brighton Center will be there to help her — along with thousands of other families learning to hope and dream again.

Tasha Ross speaks during her Center for Employment Training graduation in October. (Phil Didion for WCPO)

For more information about Brighton Center or to volunteer or make a donation, click here.

To see a list of the items Brighton Center needs for its various programs, click here.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO this year.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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