CINCINNATI -- Joni Singleton had to start all over when she moved to Cincinnati from Chicago in October 2016.
She decided to leave her job, empty her bank account and pack up her kids after a boy at her son’s school -- who was an honor student and football player -- got shot.
“I called my sister and said, 'I’m coming,'” said Singleton, who worried her son wouldn’t survive the city’s gun violence to graduate from high school. “I got to go.”
Singleton’s license to work in home health care didn’t transfer from Illinois, she said. The family qualified for government benefits, including public housing, cash assistance and food assistance. But Singleton knew she wanted to get back to work in the health care field.
Then a caseworker referred her to Brandi Lewis, the program manager for a two-year pilot program at Easterseals called Prosperity for All. Lewis met with Singleton to understand her goals and helped connect her with a program at Cincinnati State to get trained as a phlebotomist. She helped Singleton figure out bus routes from her home on the West Side of town and get a feel for which jobs would be a reasonable commute.
“She’s kind of like my guardian angel,” Singleton said of Lewis. “My blessing in disguise.”
Lewis and Prosperity for All have been such a blessing for the program’s participants, in fact, that United Way of Greater Cincinnati and the city of Cincinnati have decided to grow the program. Easterseals and Cincinnati State will announce this afternoon that United Way is awarding $212,000 to expand Prosperity for All to serve 50 local families. The city’s Hand Up Initiative will supplement the expansion.
“There’s so much more to do and so many more individuals to help,” said Cincinnati State President Monica Posey. “We see this pilot model has worked.”
It has worked because of a close collaboration among Easterseals, Cincinnati State, Hamilton County Job and Family Services and the support of the local business community, said Pam Green, Easterseals’ president and CEO.
“That’s been a unique thing for the program that has helped it to succeed and create impact,” Green said.
The power of collaboration
The program was the brainchild of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber’s first Leadership Action Class. The business leaders who were part of the class wanted to lower the city’s high poverty rate and figure out a way to change the state rules and policies that make it difficult for people to move from poverty to work.
The class members soon learned that many people trying to work their way out of poverty get stuck: They need additional education and training to get jobs that pay high enough wages for them to be self-sufficient. But people who stop working long enough to get that kind of training lose their eligibility to get the government benefits they need to help with transportation and childcare costs.
The Leadership Action Class raised money to create career and coaching services for Prosperity for All program participants. The class also worked with Hamilton County Job and Family Services to create a waiver so participants such as Singleton could continue to receive government benefits while they training at Cincinnati State.
The program then worked with Cincinnati State to figure out which short-term programs through the college’s Workforce Development Center could help participants get the training they needed for jobs in high demand that pay good wages. The Cincinnati State Foundation provided $25,000 for training grants for program participants through the foundation’s Workforce Focus Fund.
“It’s really innovative,” said Lewis, a licensed social worker who was the program’s only employee for its first two years. “United Way blessing us with this expansion, it means that Easterseals is not the only agency that thinks Prosperity for All works. It means that other folks are saying I like these results: Let’s grow it and see where it goes.”
The ‘push-pull of poverty’
The additional funding has allowed the program to add staff. Prosperity for All now has a workforce development specialist and soon will be hiring another staff member, Lewis said.
Those staff members are important because of the one-on-one attention each participant gets.
Singleton said she and Lewis talked for two and a half hours the first time they met. Lewis has gone to meet participants in their homes and has driven them to appointments when they have no other way to get there. She has helped some get the legal services they need to get their criminal records expunged, she said, and has helped others find quality childcare.
“You can’t give all that time and effort to a very high caseload,” she said.
The key is figuring out how to help people without a lot of financial resources work through unexpected problems, whether it’s having to move suddenly or having to escape domestic violence or cope with a new baby.
“Sometimes life just gets in the way of people and what their goals are,” Lewis said. “We all have them. We just work through them in different ways.”
So far 13 of the 33 people who have taken part in the Prosperity for All pilot program have completed a training program -- almost all at Cincinnati State -- and have gotten jobs in health care or the logistics industry. Six others have completed training and are looking for jobs, and others are still working on their educations.
Lewis said she’s especially proud that within a few weeks, three participants will have celebrated one-year anniversaries at the jobs that Prosperity for All helped them get. Green said Lewis deserves a lot of the credit for the program’s success because she has helped program participants understand that to get ahead, they have to leave behind aspects of their former lives.
“It’s that push-pull of poverty,” Green said. “Lives are very complicated, and it doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference. We just have to work a lot harder and a lot longer.”
Green said she would like to see the program replicated in other communities. Posey added that she thinks there is plenty of room for Prosperity for All to expand more locally, too.
“It’s right on target with our mission,” she said.
More information about Easterseals is available online. Information about Cincinnati State is available online, too.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.
To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.